General Electric builds new nuclear plants, fixes broken ones and makes old ones generate more power. It packages reactor fuel into bundles for nuke operators. There is one lucrative stop on the nuclear fuel train where GE doesn’t collect a toll, though: enriching uranium into nuclear fuel.
GE has now decided it wants into the enrichment business and is doing so with an unproved but potentially disruptive technology. It is a highly classified system of using lasers to extract fissile uranium more cheaply and efficiently than methods used today. Uranium is enriched now mostly with arrays of thousands of centrifuges, a mechanical and relatively simple technique even rogue states are able to copy. The laser technology can, if you believe its fans, produce reactor fuel using considerably less factory space and energy than centrifuge enrichment.
Fuel supply may not seem like a big issue with no one building new nuclear plants in the U.S., but a building boom is occurring outside the U.S. There are 53 new plants under construction worldwide, mostly in Asia, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agency predicts the contribution to the world’s power from nukes to rise from 370 gigawatts today to 800 by 2030. A large coal or nuclear plant might put out a gigawatt of power and juice a city of 500,000.
Enrichment yields $7 billion a year of revenue, most of it shared among Russia’s Techsnabexport, Britain’s Urenco, France’s Areva ( ARVCF.PK – news – people ) and the U.S. Enrichment Corp., a division of USEC. Despite the sensitivity of shipping enriched fuel around the world, there’s a brisk global trade. The U.S. imports 80% of its reactor fuel.
Supply could tighten over the next decade as two large sources of enriched uranium are scheduled to dry up. One is a U.S.-Russia program that dilutes highly enriched uranium taken from weapons down into reactor fuel (which is not explosive); this program is scheduled to end in 2013. It supplies about 10% of the world’s power plant uranium, according to the World Nuclear Association. Another 25% of production comes from enrichment factories that use a 64-year-old technology called gaseous diffusion. Most or all of the diffusion plants will be rendered obsolete and shut down by 2017.
USEC operates a big gaseous diffusion plant in Kentucky, but its contract for electricity runs out in 2012, and it is unclear whether it can produce fuel profitably after that. It is planning to build a centrifuge plant to replace it, but the U.S. Department of Energy denied the company’s loan guarantee application this summer, and now the future of the plant is in doubt. A Urenco subsidiary has nearly finished a centrifuge plant in New Mexico, and Areva is trying to build one in Idaho.
GE believes that enrichment can help it win larger reactor construction deals in developing countries, where governments tend to favor vendors that can do it all. GE acquired rights to its laser-enrichment technology in 2006 from the Australian company that invented it. With Hitachi ( HIT – news – people ), its nuclear plant construction partner, and Canadian uranium miner and miller Cameco ( CCJ – news – people ), GE created a joint venture called Global Laser Enrichment. “This would really close the fuel cycle for us,” says Tammy Orr, the chief executive of the joint venture.
When uranium comes out of the ground it is milled into a powder called yellowcake. The uranium in the cake is almost entirely the stable isotope uranium 238. Fission comes from the relatively unstable isotope u-235. Reactors need u-235 in concentrations of 3% to 5%, requiring the enrichment step to make it useful. Once enriched, one pencil-thin, 14-foot rod of uranium has enough energy to provide 56 years of electricity use by a typical American.
All commercial enrichment methods involve first gasifying the uranium with fluorine, creating the gas uranium hexafluoride. The oldest enrichment technology, developed in the U.S. during World War II, diffuses the gas through a membrane. The Russians perfected a far less energy-hogging method that uses centrifuges to spin the uranium hexafluoride at 50,000rpm so that heavier u-238 separates from lighter u-235. Both methods repeat their process hundreds of times, enriching the uranium in tiny increments.
Kent Williams, a senior researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who has worked on other laser enrichment technologies, says laser concentration can be more efficient simply because it doesn’t have to be repeated as often. Still, using lasers to enrich uranium has been tried and abandoned before. The U.S. spent $2 billion on a laser technology called Avlis in the 1980s before giving up. The French tried it, too. In the 1990s USEC worked on the method GE is now perfecting but decided it wouldn’t be ready soon enough to replace its gaseous diffusion plant.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t let GE say much about its process, which is called Silex, an acronym for “separation of isotopes by laser excitation.” It involves passing uranium hexafluoride gas through a laser beam (GE won’t say what color). The wavelength of the laser light can be tuned to interfere only with u-235 and “excite” the molecules, raising their energy level. One possibility, says Oak Ridge’s Williams, is that a second laser is then used to blast off one of the fluorine atoms in the molecule. The new molecule, a uranium 235 atom surrounded by just five fluorine atoms, is no longer a gas. It’s a solid and can easily be collected. Williams cautions that the Silex technology could be something entirely different.
GE won’t say how much more energy-efficient its method is but says it consumes 75% less floor space. The laser technology is flexible. The price of enough yellowcake to fuel a 1-gig power plant for 12 months has bounced around from $3 million in 2000 to $40 million in 2007 to a recent $14 million (the ultimate fuel cost, including enrichment and other services, is double that). If yellowcake is expensive, GE can fire its lasers more often and grab as much u-235 as possible. Orr compares the process to squeezing oranges. “If you want one glass, you can squeeze two oranges, or you can squeeze just one and squeeze the [heck] out of it.”
GE is operating a test factory in Wilmington, North Carolina, where it hopes to build a full-scale plant big enough to generate as much as $1 billion in revenue a year. The plant’s output by itself would satisfy nearly one-half of current U.S. demand. Orr is not worried about a glut. “The market that we serve is not just a U.S. market, and the global supply and demand curves would say there’s plenty of room for this technology,” she says. “If the U.S. eventually becomes an exporter, from an energy security perspective, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” GE’s technology wasn’t ready in time to meet a 2008 deadline for a federal loan guarantee to help finance the plant, but Orr says GE would apply if more money becomes available.
By early next year GE will have enough data from the test factory to know just how efficient the process can be. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing GE’s application to build a plant. A decision is expected in early 2012, and construction would take two years.