Global Laser Enrichment has decided not to submit a proposal in response to a US Department of Energy request for the acquisition of high-assay low-enriched uranium enrichment, its 51%-owner Silex Systems has announced. The company has also received regulatory approval to load uranium hexafluoride for the start of testing to demonstrate the technology it plans to use in its enrichment facility at Paducah in Kentucky.

The Paducah site when it was the home of a gaseous diffusion enrichment plant (Image: US DOE)

In January, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for uranium enrichment services to help establish a reliable domestic supply of fuels using high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU. Enriched to between 5% and 20% U-235, HALEU fuel is used by many of the advanced reactor designs that are currently under development, but is not currently commercially available from US-based suppliers.

Global Laser Enrichment LLC (GLE) is the exclusive global licensee of the SILEX laser-based uranium enrichment technology which was originally developed by Australian company Silex. It is 49%-owned by Canadian company Cameco, which is the commercial lead for the GLE project and holds an option to attain a majority interest of 75%.

GLE is working towards demonstration of the SILEX technology at its Test Loop pilot facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. It is also progressing activities to commercial-scale deployment at the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility (PLEF), which is underpinned by a 2016 agreement for the sale to GLE of some 200,000 tonnes of depleted uranium hexafluoride from the DOE to provide feedstock for the production of natural UF6.

In addition to the production of natural grade UF6 (containing 0.7% uranium-235) from the processing of depleted uranium, the multipurpose plant has two further commercialisation options: the production of enriched uranium from natural UF6 to supply enriched uranium fuel for existing reactors; and the production of HALEU.

According to Silex, GLE's evaluation has determined that the RFP "does not warrant GLE changing from its first commercial priority" of producing natural UF6. This would seem to be in line with Cameco's latest Management’s discussion and analysis (MD&A) document, published in February, in which the company said "our view is that re-enriching US government inventories of depleted uranium tails into a commercial source of uranium and conversion is GLE's lowest-risk path to the market", adding that the agreement with the DOE to upgrade depleted uranium tails left over from historic enrichment operations "may help address the growing supply gap for Western nuclear fuel supplies and services" - PLEF's planned annual output of up to 5 million pounds of U3O8 (1923 tU) would place it in the top ten global uranium mines in terms of production volumes.

GLE is "currently awaiting details" on a potential USD100 million funding opportunity from DOE to support novel enrichment technology, which is expected to be published this year, Silex said. It also noted that the US Consolidated Appropriations Act 2024, which has now been signed into law, includes USD2.7 billion of funding - contingent on a US government ban on imports of nuclear fuel from Russia - which is expected to provide support for production of both low-enriched uranium and HALEU.

"We continue to encourage the DOE to move expeditiously to publish all available funding opportunities to create a competitive, diverse US fuel supply chain and to enable the cessation of reliance on Russian-sourced nuclear fuel," Silex said.

Technology readiness testing go-ahead

Separately, Silex has announced that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has completed an inspection of GLE's Test Loop pilot demonstration facility and operational safety programmes in Wilmington, North Carolina, providing the approval for GLE to load UF6 feed material in preparation for the start of TRL-6 enrichment testing.

TRL-6 is the sixth of nine internationally recognised technology readiness levels used to assess the maturity of a technology. TRL-6 confirms large-scale system performance under relevant conditions (pilot-scale demonstration).

The NRC review and approval of the Test Loop facility and operations clears the way for the final preparations for TRL-6 enrichment testing, which is expected to begin in the second quarter of this year, Silex said. GLE anticipates completing the technology demonstration project this year. "Subject to the successful completion of the TRL-6 pilot demonstration project, industry and government support, a feasibility assessment for the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility, suitable market conditions, and other factors, this preserves the option to commence commercial operations at the planned PLEF in Kentucky as early as 2028," the company added.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News

Date: Wednesday, 27 March 2024
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