DOE moves on sale and disposal of depleted uranium

June 11, 2020, 2:05PMRadwaste Solutions

The Department of Energy has signed an amendment to a 2016 sales agreement with Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) that will provide the company with access to large stockpiles of DOE-owned depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) tails as GLE looks to build its proposed uranium enrichment facility at the DOE’s Paducah site in Kentucky. As announced on June 5, the amendment is one of the conditions of a 2019 agreement by Australia’s Silex Systems Limited, Canada’s Cameco Corporation, and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy for the restructuring of GLE, the exclusive licensee of Silex’s laser uranium enrichment technology.

Separately, the DOE announced on June 5 that it has issued a formal record of decision for the shipment and disposal of depleted uranium oxide from the former gaseous diffusion plants at the department’s Paducah and Portsmouth sites in Ohio to one or more disposal facilities in the western United States.

Laser enrichment: According to Silex, the availability of the DOE’s DUF6 inventories is critical to GLE’s proposed Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility (PLEF), which would use Silex’s laser enrichment technology to re-enrich the DOE’s stockpiles of depleted uranium tails. GLE would sell the resulting natural grade uranium in the form of UF6 on the global uranium market at a production rate of around 2,000 metric tons per year, equivalent to a uranium mine producing an annual output of around 5.2 million pounds of uranium oxide, Silex said. The production facility will also have the added value of producing uranium that has already been converted to UF6. “Preliminary economic analysis of the project indicates that it would rank as a large ‘Tier 1’ uranium mine by today’s standards with respect to the long life and low cost of production,” Silex said.

Under the December 2019 restructuring agreement, which is pending regulatory approval, Silex and Cameco agreed to purchase GE Hitachi’s 76 percent interest in GLE, with Silex acquiring a 51 percent interest in GLE and Cameco increasing its interest from 24 percent to 49 percent. Government approval of the transaction is expected by the end of the 2020 calendar year.

Silex said that it anticipates beginning commercial operations of PLEF later this decade, subject to technology readiness, regulatory approvals, and prevailing market conditions.

DU oxide disposal: The DOE’s record of decision on depleted uranium oxide will implement the department’s preferred alternative for its disposal, as documented in the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Disposition of Depleted Uranium Oxide Conversion Product Generated from DOE’s Inventory of Depleted Uranium Hexafluoride. Specifically, the DOE has decided to dispose of the material, if declared a waste, at one or more of the evaluated disposal sites: the EnergySolutions low-level radioactive waste disposal facility near Clive, Utah; the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) LLW disposal facility near Andrews, Texas; and the Nevada National Security Site LLW disposal facility in Nye County, Nevada. The DOE said that it will ship to the selected commercial sites only if the facility is authorized to receive DU oxide.

The DOE said that its near-term plan is to focus on DU oxide disposal at commercial sites and that it is planning a pilot project in the next year to ship several rail cars containing cylinders of the material to either the EnergySolutions or WCS facilities. The DU oxide results from the conversion of DUF6, a byproduct of the gaseous diffusion process that was used to enrich uranium. Conversion plants now operating at the Portsmouth and Paducah sites convert DUF6 to DU oxide, a more stable form for possible reuse or disposal.

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