Enrichment of natural uranium and waste using lasers is much cheaper than enrichment using centrifuges and can fully provide the US nuclear power industry with nuclear fuel. The first full-scale laser system module for the Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) Commercial Uranium Enrichment Experimental Demonstration Facility (GLE) has completed testing and will be shipped to the US site. The installation was developed and tested by the Australian Silex Systems.
Today, the US nuclear power industry is critically dependent on the supply of enriched uranium from Russia. Also, all future promising American nuclear reactors, which will need HALEU fuel (high-grade low-enriched uranium), depend on Russian supplies. In particular, the company Global Laser Enrichment, which was created to work in the US by the Australian Silex Systems and the Canadian Cameco, tried to get away from this dependence. Out of necessity, locals were involved in the project – General Electric, which pulled its long-time partner, the Japanese Hitachi, into the project.
It was planned that Global Laser Enrichment would build a uranium enrichment plant in Wilmington (North Carolina, USA) using laser systems. The productivity of the plant promised to be from 3.5 to 6 million SWU/year (separation work units, which, for ease of understanding the scale, can conditionally be equated to a kilogram of fuel). If everything worked out, the USA would get a powerful separation plant with a very, very low cost, which would even make it possible to make a claim for world leadership in this area. But, it didn’t work out.
At the end of 2019, General Electric and Hitachi, disappointed in the project, sold their shares in GLE to the founders – Silex Systems (51% of shares) and Cameco (49%). In Australia itself, we recall, it is prohibited by law to enrich uranium and build nuclear reactors. Nevertheless, the technology continued to develop and Silex Systems was able to create a pilot plant close to commercial possibilities, which, with the participation of Americans, has been tested in operation for the past 8 months. The module will now be shipped to the US for installation at the GLE facility.
“This is a major milestone for SILEX uranium enrichment technology, demonstrating the ability of our laser systems to operate reliably on a commercial scale for a long time,” said Silex Managing Director and CEO Michael Goldsworthy.
The module is currently being decommissioned and being packaged for shipment to the GLE facility in Wilmington, NC, where it is expected to be installed before the end of this year. In parallel, Silex Systems is manufacturing additional identical laser system modules required for a commercial demonstration project, with all modules scheduled to ship to Wilmington by the end of 2023.
According to GLE plans, a commercial pilot demonstration project should be operational by the mid-2020s, after which the timing of a large-scale launch will be more accurately estimated. In general, commercial operations are expected to begin in 2027 depending on market demand and other factors.
In conclusion, we add that the SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser EXcitation) project is rooted in the military nuclear program of South Africa. After the nuclear disarmament of South Africa, laser technology came to Australia, on the basis of which Silex Systems Ltd was created, but that’s another story.