Silex Systems Limited (ASX: SLX) has completed a key milestone in the development of the SILEX uranium laser enrichment project being conducted in collaboration with exclusive licensee, US-based Global Laser Enrichment (GLE). GLE is 51% owned by Silex, with joint venture partner Cameco Corporation holding 49% ownership.
The milestone involves the completion of initial testing of the first module of full-scale laser technology required for GLE’s commercial pilot demonstration project being conducted in Wilmington, North Carolina.
CEO and Managing Director, Michael Goldsworthy, said the full-scale laser system module was designed and built at Silex’s Lucas Heights laser technology development centre by the company’s laser engineering team over the last few years.
“This is an important milestone for both Silex and GLE, marking the first time that the SILEX laser technology has achieved commercial-scale performance for uranium enrichment. We congratulate our very talented laser engineering team who have produced this unique, cutting- edge laser technology which will be utilised by GLE under the SILEX uranium technology license agreement,” Mr Goldsworthy said.
The Laser System Technology Milestone is the culmination of many years of world-leading laser technology development activities at Silex and represents one of two critical SILEX technology components that form the heart of the SILEX enrichment technology. As shown in red in the figure below, the other component consists of the SILEX Separator Systems, which are currently being scaled up at GLE’s Test Loop facility in the US.
The commercial-scale laser system module will undergo rigorous testing over the coming months with the focus on optimising system efficiency and demonstrating reliable 24/7-based operations, before shipment to GLE’s Test Loop facility in Wilmington, NC in mid-2022. Construction of additional identical laser system modules required for the commercial pilot demonstration project is advancing, with all modules scheduled to be shipped to Wilmington by the end of 2023.
GLE is planning to complete the commercial pilot demonstration project by the mid-2020’s, after which a feasibility assessment will be conducted for the proposed Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility (PLEF), which GLE hopes to deploy for the production of natural grade uranium in the late 2020’s.
About the SILEX Uranium Enrichment Technology
The SILEX technology is the only third-generation laser-based uranium enrichment technology under commercial development today. Subject to the successful completion of the commercialisation project, market conditions and other factors, the SILEX technology could enable GLE to become a major contributor to nuclear fuel production for the world’s current and future nuclear reactor fleet, through the production of uranium in three different forms:
- natural grade uranium (Unat): via enrichment of DOE inventories of depleted tails through the PLEF project – producing uranium at natural U235 assay of ~ 0.7%;
- low enriched uranium (LEU): for use as fuel in today’s conventional nuclear power reactors – which require fuel with U235 assays of between 3% and 5%; and
- high assay LEU (HALEU): a customised fuel for next generation Small Modular Reactors (SMR’s) currently under development – several of which require fuel with U235 assays of between 5% and 20%.
Uranium production and enrichment are the two largest value drivers of the current nuclear fuel cycle, accounting for up to 70% of the value of a fuel bundle. Importantly, commercialisation of the SILEX uranium enrichment technology through GLE could enable the SILEX technology to become a unique, multi-purpose nuclear fuel production platform for existing and emerging nuclear power generation systems, including as a potential producer of HALEU fuel for SMR’s.
GLE’s Proposed Paducah ‘Tier 1’ Uranium Production Project:
The Paducah commercial project opportunity is an ideal path to market for the SILEX technology and GLE. Underpinning this opportunity is the Sales Agreement between GLE and the US Department of Energy (DOE) which provides GLE access to large stockpiles of depleted uranium tails inventories owned by the DOE.
The Paducah commercial project opportunity will involve GLE constructing the proposed PLEF utilising the SILEX technology to enrich the DOE tails inventories which have been stored in the form of depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6 – containing U235 assays of between 0.25% to 0.4%) to produce natural grade uranium (assay of ~0.71%). Subject to completion of the technology commercialisation project, regulatory approvals, financing and prevailing market conditions, it is anticipated the PLEF will commence commercial operations from the late 2020’s.
Production of natural grade uranium at the PLEF would continue over three decades, with the output sold into the global uranium market at a production rate equivalent to a uranium mine producing an annual output of around 5 million pounds of uranium oxide, which would rank in the top ten of today’s uranium mines by production volume. Preliminary analysis by Silex of the PLEF project indicates it could rank equal to a ‘Tier 1’ uranium project based on current estimates of the long-life and low cost of production.