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Land deal struck in Paducah for potential first-of-its-kind laser uranium enrichment facility


Vibrating uranium with lasers could be the key to recycling depleted uranium stores across the country into fuel for nuclear power plants and enrichment facilities – and Paducah could be the home of the first commercial facility to employ the technology in the world.

Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) has had a deal with the U.S. Department of Energy since 2016 to use its proprietary molecular process to enrich 200,000 metric tons of depleted uranium “tails” in storage at the former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site in far western Kentucky.

Since then, according to company sources, GLE’s research, development and testing have pushed the third generation nuclear technology toward commercial viability. The company, formerly owned by General Electric and Hitachi, is now 51% owned by Silex – an Australian nuclear tech company that pioneered the enrichment technique – and 49% owned by Cameco, a Canada-based nuclear fuel provider.

Local officials have confirmed that GLE signed an agreement recently that gives the company the option to acquire a plot of land adjacent to the former PGDP site. That plant opened in 1952 and served in a national defense capacity until it began producing fuel-grade uranium used to generate electricity in nuclear reactors in 1964. It ceased operations in 2013.

The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant
U.S. Department of Energy
The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant

The plot near the former PGDP site is currently owned by Kentucky Fish & Wildlife. The Paducah-McCracken County Industrial Development Authority has entered into an option to acquire a parcel of land located along the Mississippi River in Fulton and Hickman counties that it would transfer to KFW if the option for GLE is picked up.

Greater Paducah Economic Development president and CEO Bruce Wilcox confirmed that the option expires in December 2024, though GLE is expected to complete a demonstration of the technology at its Test Loop pilot facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, in advance of that deadline.

McCracken County Commissioner Eddie Jones chairs the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization – a group that hopes to spur economic development and urge cleanup operations around the former PGDP site. He said it’s an “exciting development” and that Paducah’s nuclear past could be one of the keys to its economic future.

Patrick White
Patrick White

“Uranium that our fathers and grandfathers enriched at the plant, they did it through a gaseous diffusion process. [That] process … has the leftovers, right? We call them the tails,” Jones said. “Well, they still got the good stuff in it and if you can use a new technology to enrich it again … there is a ready made supply of product sitting there on the lot at Paducah.”

Patrick White is the research director for the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit Washington D.C. thinktank that advocates for advanced nuclear energy solutions as part of the solution to address energy needs and climate change in the U.S.

The specific methodology of the Silex technique is classified, but White was able to explain how laser uranium enrichment works in principle – using lasers to selectively excite only the uranium-235 molecules in the tails leftover from the gaseous diffusion process and using a physical method to separate those out from the inert uranium-238 molecules also present in the depleted nuclear fuel.

White said the technology to make laser uranium enrichment possible has been “under development in fits and spurts” for the last 50 years and that earlier enrichment methods – like those involving gaseous diffusion or a gas centrifuge technique – required more space and power than a laser enrichment plant would.

“If you're ever able to actually make it work, you can potentially do uranium enrichment with essentially much less energy required and a much smaller footprint,” he said. “So it has a lot of benefits in terms of the economics and the overall impacts of the uranium enrichment technology.”

Some scientists and securities experts have raised concerns regarding the Silex process because of its potential when it comes to global nuclear proliferation. White said the technique’s existence isn’t “necessarily a major issue” as long as the right controls are in place to “make sure that it's being only used in a responsible way.”

“What makes it potentially a really great tool in helping us develop kind of a domestic nuclear fuel cycle for civilian purposes, are the exact same things that potentially make it a lot harder to control from an international security and safeguards perspective,” White said.

Nima Ashkeboussi, vice president of government relations and communications for GLE, confirmed in an interview that the facility, if built, would cost more than $1 billion to construct and create “several hundred permanent jobs” in the Purchase Area.

“Not only are we bringing a plant there to clean up some legacy liabilities from the old gaseous diffusion plant, but that we're going to bring a lot of jobs to western Kentucky,” Ashkeboussi said of the potential economic impact of the facility. “We're going to be in the community for a long time.”

Ashkeboussi estimates that the depleted uranium it signed a deal with the DOE to enrich is enough for the facility to do “30 to 40 years worth of processing.” Once it has been enriched to the level of natural uranium, he said, that formerly depleted nuclear fuel could then be further enriched or utilized at other enrichment facilities or in nuclear power plants.

Kentucky going nuclear?

There are no active nuclear power plants or enrichment facilities in Kentucky, but lawmakers in the state have pushed legislation in recent years to bring the industry back to the Bluegrass State.

A moratorium that restricted the creation of new nuclear reactor sites in the states was in place for several decades before being lifted in 2017 with the passage of the Robert J. Leeper Act, named for a former western Kentucky senator that was a strong advocate for nuclear energy.

State Sen. Danny Carroll – a Republican from Benton – sponsored that bill and ushered forth legislation that will ultimately result in the creation of the Kentucky Nuclear Energy Development Authority, a non-regulatory state agency administratively attached to the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research. He also successfully sponsored a resolution calling for the state’s Public Service Commission to ready itself to regulate applications for the siting and construction of nuclear energy facilities.

Danny Carroll
Danny Carroll

A renewed focus on the removal of regulatory barriers to nuclear industry in the state has been followed by interest in potential nuclear economic development. During an interim session committee meeting earlier this month, Kentucky lawmakers heard about the potential for a nuclear fusion plant in the state.

The idea of the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility has been on paper for more than a decade, persisting even as GLE changed hands, PGDP closed and the market around nuclear power evolved. Ashkeboussi said the economic climate for the proposed facility is favorable.

“Market conditions have improved over the last several years. There's renewed global interest in nuclear power, both for carbon-free energy attributes, plus, its energy security,” he said. “Also, Russia is a major global supplier of nuclear fuel, including to the United States. So there's a renewed urgency to transition off of those Russian imports as soon as possible.”

President Joe Biden approved a spending bill in March that allocated $2.7 billion to “build out [the country’s] advanced nuclear fuel supply chain” and Ashkeboussi hopes that GLE will receive some of that funding to help accomplish its goals.

Silex leadership told World Nuclear News earlier this month that commercial operations could begin in Paducah "as early as 2028," though Ashkeboussi could not confirm that timeline.

A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official said that, for a facility to be built in Paducah, a new license would need to be issued to GLE – a process that takes about 30 months. That would include “a thorough environmental review and development of an Environmental Impact Statement; a technical safety/security review; and a mandatory hearing process.” They also confirmed a closed meeting between NRC officials and GLE is set for later this month.

Copyright 2024 WKMS

Derek Operle

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