The demand for enriched uranium is projected to increase significantly in the next decade with the anticipated construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants.
In response, the US subsidiary of Canadian-based Cameco, Cameco Enrichment Holdings, has invested in GE Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a company that is commercialising an enrichment process using laser technology to enrich uranium for nuclear power plants.
The process itself vapourises uranium hexafluoride into a gaseous form and then exposes it to a laser beam that preferentially excites the 235UF6 isotope, which enables separation of natural uranium into enriched and depleted uranium. The process operation, while technically complex, is potentially more efficient than existing centrifuge enrichment technology.
Cameco will now own 24 per cent of the company, with GE remaining the majority owner with a 51 per cent share. Tokyo-based Hitachi will own 25 per cent.
GLE has the exclusive rights to develop, commercialise and launch the technology under a deal it signed in 2006 with the original developer, the Australian company Silex Systems. A test facility, designed to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of the technology, is being constructed at GEH’s headquarters in Wilmington, North Carolina, and should be operational this year.
GLE intends to make a final decision on the construction of a commercial facility in 2009, but current plans call for the company to build the facility as early as 2012.