Global Laser Enrichment Could Bring New Laser-Based Technology to Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Site

Nov 27, 2013

Depleted uranium cylinders stored at PGDP
Credit Department of Energy

The U.S. Department of Energy will begin negotiations with GE Hitachi's Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) for the sale of the depleted uranium hexafluoride inventory at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The department announced Wednesday that it has chosen GE-Hitachi's plan to re-enrich high assay depleted uranium tails at the site.  According to a DOE statement:

GLE proposed licensing, constructing, and operating a new laser enrichment facility that could potentially provide significant compensation to the Department for its depleted uranium hexafluoride inventories, as well as supporting U.S. policy interests and utilization of the Paducah site. The GLE offer also included the potential lease or use of existing Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant facilities, infrastructure, and utilities. The company’s commercial operation also has the potential to produce substantial economic benefit to the Paducah region through the addition of highly skilled technical jobs and increasing the local tax base.GE-Hitachi plans to invest about $1 billion to develop the state-of-the-art facility. 

The Department also decided to enter into negotiations with AREVA for the off-specification uranium hexafluoride inventory. The AREVA proposal utilizes its nuclear fuel fabrication facility in Richland, Wash. to process the hexafluoride as blend stock for domestic nuclear reactor fuel.

Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-01) and Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul released a joint  statement praising the negotiations and the decision by the DOE. “We have been encouraged by GE’s commitment to Paducah"..."From a national perspective, the proposal seeks to save the federal government money in cost reduction and revive the U.S. domestic nuclear supply chain while likely generating billions of dollars in new tax revenues for the local, state, and federal government."

The senators and the congressman also say they expect GE to invest more than $1 billion for construction of a facility to conduct the laser enrichment operations.

Paducah Economic Development Council CEO Chad Chancellor said the announcement is a victory after many months of negotiations, but a good deal of work needs to be done before the plant can be reopened.

“As you can imagine, when you’re handling nuclear materials you have to go through a significant permitting phase, then of course you have a year or two after for construction," Chancellor said. "So those things will have to be done.”

Chancellor said he’s not sure yet how many jobs this could bring to Paducah, but the PED Council is committed to making the deal a success on the local level.

The announcement follows a Nov. 14 meeting between DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz and a team of Kentucky lawmakers - including McConnell, Paul and Whitfield - who pressed for a final decision over the long-term future of the plant.

GE spokesman Christopher White said the company has developed and tested a new, more efficient laser based technology that has not yet been commercially used to enrich uranium. But he said it would be used at Paducah.

“If we were ultimately able to build a facility in Paducah that would certainly make Paducah one of the centers of excellence for laser based technology around the world,” White said.

White said French-based AREVA’s portion is much smaller than GLE’s. He also said it’s important to know what was announced today and what wasn’t.

“What we did announce was entering negotiations with the DOE. We have not made a firm commitment to build a plant,” White said. “So if the negotiations are ultimately successful we would then enter a multiyear licensing phase with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Once we had a site license at that point we would decide whether to build a plant or not.”

White said if GLE does put a plant in Paducah it could bring hundreds of jobs to the community in addition to the thousands of construction jobs it would take to build the facility.