Global Laser Enrichment Hits Licensing Milestone With Early NRC Environmental Report

New generation Laser Enrichment Process can increase domestic nuclear fuel supply

 - By Stephen Heiser -

Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a business venture of GE, Hitachi Ltd. and Cameco, has announced a key milestone in the licensing path of its proposed laser-based uranium enrichment facility, designed to safely provide a domestic supply of nuclear fuel to help power America’s energy future.

On Jan. 30, GLE delivered an early submittal of its environmental report to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The document represents a significant portion of the overall license application that will be fully submitted by June 2009.

GLE is introducing a third-generation process utilizing laser technology to enrich uranium, which is then used as fuel in nuclear power plants. Global demand for enriched uranium is expected to increase significantly in the next several decades with the anticipated construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants to help meet the world’s converging needs to achieve energy security and address climate change.

“Submitting the GLE environmental report is an important step forward in the licensing process for this promising technological innovation,” said Tammy Orr, President and CEO of GLE. “We are very encouraged about the progress of GLE and the prospects for integrating this 21st Century solution in our portfolio to help meet the energy needs of utilities in the United States and around the world.”

On Jan. 13, the NRC approved GLE’s request to submit the environmental report early, noting this step may add to the efficiency of the licensing process. According to the NRC, the review process for an enrichment facility takes about 30 months, with much of the time devoted to the environmental report.

GLE announced in April 2008 a potential full-scale commercial production facility to be co-located with the existing nuclear fuel manufacturing facilities of Global Nuclear Fuel and the services and new-plants business of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy at their combined headquarters site near Wilmington. Cameco, one of the largest producers of uranium in the world, acquired a 24% ownership stake in GLE in June 2008 through its American subsidiary.

GLE has exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the third-generation uranium enrichment technology globally through a license from Silex Systems Ltd. of Australia.

GLE currently is in the pre-deployment stage of a “test loop,” with laser systems being installed and tested. Major components have been designed and are in the process of being manufactured and delivered for installation. Key resources are in place to operate the test loop.

“We are very excited about the start-up of the test loop in the coming months,” Orr said. “The results of the test loop will provide us with key information to guide our next steps in the deployment of this cutting-edge technology.”

The test loop facility received NRC operating license approval in May 2008. The test loop facility is designed to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of the technology and intended to advance the design of the equipment, building and processes for the potential commercial production facility. The initiative involves designing components of the commercial production facility and ascertaining the specifications and range of operating parameters for the equipment to be used in production.

As part of the test loop process, uranium hexaflouride (UF6) will be enriched in small amounts and blended back to natural UF6. GLE intends to use information from the test loop to make a decision in 2009 on whether to proceed with construction of the full-scale commercial production facility. If the decision is made to proceed with construction, the GLE commercial production facility would have a target capacity of 3.5 to 6 million Separative Work Units (SWUs). 

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