GE-Hitachi to Enrich Uranium for Nuclear Power

Written By Brianna Panzica

Posted September 26, 2012

On Tuesday, GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment LLC, a partnership between General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) and Hitachi Ltd. (TYO: 6501), received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build a laser enrichment facility.

The partnership is a subset of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, a company that makes nuclear reactor components. The new facility will be built at its headquarters in Wilmington, North Carolina.

The company received the technology for the facility from Silex Systems (ASX: SLX), an Australian company focused on research and development for uranium enrichment. The technology, which uses lasers to enrich uranium, had to undergo several years of regulation review before it was approved.

From GE’s press release:

“Receiving our NRC license is a tremendous accomplishment and strong testament to everyone involved in this project,” said Chris Monetta, president and CEO of Global Laser Enrichment. “The technology we’ve developed could be one of the keys to the nation’s long-term energy security. At a minimum, it could provide a steady supply of uranium enriched right here in the U.S. to the country’s nuclear reactors. These reactors provide approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity today and will continue to be an important part of the energy mix for decades to come.”

The laser technology is cheaper than many options, and it will bring a flow of enriched uranium right to the U.S. The facility will be able to produce 6 million single work units (SWU) annually, enough to power 42 reactors.

The United States currently has 104 nuclear reactors in operation that could benefit from this steady flow of enriched uranium, a central component to nuclear reactions.

GE Hitachi will be able to enrich uranium to 8 percent by weight, limiting it from being used for nuclear weaponry. An atomic bomb requires uranium enriched to 90 percent purity.

The U.S. and Europe recently placed sanctions on Iranian oil because it was discovered to have enriched uranium to 20 percent, dangerously higher than a level normally used for nuclear power and sparking concern that the nation is building nuclear weapons.

Though the NRC has confirmed it will continue to inspect the process during plant construction and operations, others are still concerned about the implications this sort of technology might have.

From the Washington Post:

“We think the approval of the license was done without due consideration of proliferation,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the global security program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re already grappling with how to cope with Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability” and the laser technology “could make the problem of global proliferation intractable and uncontrollable.”

But the application for the license was submitted in June 2009 and approved yesterday. The NRC reviewed the decision and the implications for three years before agreeing to allow the technology to go forward.

And the company has assured the NRC that the technology will remain classified and secure.

Global Laser Enrichment is still waiting to determine if its new project will be able to kick-start the facility’s construction, which will cost roughly $1 billion.

But if it does, Monetta told the Greater Wilmington Business Journal, the construction would create roughly 680 jobs, and the facility would require 250 permanent workers.

After the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant, nuclear power has undergone much criticism. But the power source supplies just under a quarter of the nation’s energy, and unlike fossil fuels, it is completely clean.

The company is still evaluating whether enriched uranium will be in high demand in the future. But as the U.S. moves to achieve energy independence, nuclear will likely play a role.

Brianna Panzica

follow basic@brianna_panzica on Twitter

Energy & Capital’s modern energy guru, Brianna digs deep into the industry with accurate and insightful updates into the biggest energy companies and events. She stays up to date with the latest market moves and industry finds, bringing readers a unique view of current energy trends.

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