The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) has suspended development of its atomic vapour laser isotope separation (AVLIS) technology. The Bethesda, Maryland based company said the potential economic returns do not justify the financial risks and the large capital expenditures required to build a commercial AVLIS plant.

AVLIS had been undergoing final economic demonstrations at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The decision to suspend development came after a review of operating and economic factors by USEC’s Board of Directors and management.

“Even if these issues were resolved, the resulting economics, weighed against the market price trends for enrichment, would provide too low a rate of return on investment for the risk involved,” said J. William Bennett, USEC’s vice president of advanced technology, who has headed the AVLIS program.

USEC has spent about $100 million developing AVLIS technology since it was spun off from the Department of Energy. The move to suspend development will result in a charge to the company in the region of another $40 million.

William H Timbers, Jr, president and ceo, said USEC remains committed to pursuing “a cost-effective advanced enrichment technology” that some day could supersede USEC’s ageing gaseous diffusion plants. USEC is evaluating both an Australian laser enrichment process called SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) and gas centrifuge technology. USEC has secured exclusive rights to explore the commercial viability of the SILEX system, which differs substantially from AVLIS.