Laser Uranium Enrichment Plant Licensed by NRC

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it issued a license Sept. 25 to GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's Global Laser Enrichment to construct and operate the plant in Wilmington, N.C.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it issued a license Sept. 25 to GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH)'s Global Laser Enrichment to construct and operate a plant that enriches uranium up to 8 percent by weight using a laser-based technology. GEH will build it in Wilmington, N.C., where it is headquartered. NRC's announcement said the resulting low-enriched uranium will be used in fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors.

GEH submitted its license application on June 26, 2009, and NRC's staff then conducted safety and environmental reviews. A Safety Evaluation Report (NUREG-2120) and Final Environmental Impact Statement (NUREG-1938) were published in February, with the former concluding the proposed facility complies with NRC regulations and would not pose an undue risk to the health and safety of workers or the public and the latter concluding no significant environmental impacts are expected that preclude licensing it.

An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board conducted a hearing on the staff's review in July and then on Sept. 19 issued its decision authorizing the staff to issue the license.

NRC's announcement said the agency will hold a public meeting in Wilmington before construction begins to explain how it will oversee the project.

An October 2010 article by Sandra Upson in IEEE Spectrum explains the process of laser uranium enrichment and mentions some scientists' concern that, because it would use less energy in smaller facilities than conventional enrichment plants require, the technology may pose proliferation risks.

GE's Sept. 25 news release says the license will allow the plant to produce up to 6 million single work units (SWU) per year in the United States. "The next step in the process is for the company to make a commercialization decision," it says.

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