Sask. uranium giant ups stake in laser technology to fuel small reactors

The federal government recently announced Canada’s Small Modular Reactor Action Plan as part of its commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

Silex technology separates isotopes using lasers to produce enriched uranium to fuel small reactors. Photo courtesy of Silex Systems

The world’s largest publicly traded uranium company is betting big on a new laser enrichment technology that it says will help power Canada’s shift to a more eco-friendly future.

Saskatoon-based Cameco Corp. obtained a 49 per cent stake in Global Laser Enrichment LLC (GLE) in a joint acquisition with Australian technology company Silex Systems for General Electric Company subsidiary GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s shares in the project.

GLE was founded in 2008 as a joint venture between General Energy, Hitachi and Cameco to develop Silex’s technology that separates isotopes using lasers to produce enriched uranium.

The federal government recently announced Canada’s Small Modular Reactor Action Plan as part of its commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) are designed to produce smaller amounts of electricity, between 50 and 300 megawatts, without the emissions usually associated with power generation.

“Nuclear power plays a massive role in the global clean energy equation,” Cameco President and CEO Tim Gitzel said. 

“That role will only increase in a carbon constrained world, particularly with the momentum behind SMR and advanced reactor technologies, a focus on the electrification of transportation systems, and the many other innovations that countries and companies are counting on to help meet their emission reduction targets.”

Canada’s current reactor fleet consists mostly of Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) technology which doesn’t rely on enriched fuel. 

The company plans to commercialize this new uranium enrichment process that it says could power SMRs in a more cost-effective way. 

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said last summer that nuclear power is a critical part of the solution to climate change and will help rural and remote communities as a new base for the electrical grid. 

“We are not going to be able to deal with things like climate change or very broad issues if we are not going to commit to integrating nuclear power into our systems. It has to be part of the solutions. We simply are unable to get the job done without it,” Moe said.

Moe had signed a memorandum of understanding with the premiers of Ontario and New Brunswick to work together on further developing the nuclear industry last December.

While nuclear power has backing from both federal and provincial governments as a way to shift away from carbon, uranium enrichment is a complex process that accounts for around 30 per cent of the cost of nuclear fuel. 

GLE has an agreement with the United States Department of Energy to enrich depleted uranium tails, repurpose legacy waste into uranium, convert products to fuel nuclear reactors and help clean-up enrichment facilities no longer in operation.

The agreement comes with promises to deliver low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel with better efficiency and flexibility than current enrichment technologies, and to produce the high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) needed as the primary fuel stock for SMRs.

In addition to lowering cost, Silex says the process could also increase supply of nuclear fuel to the new reactors more efficiently. 

“This new ownership structure, together with the recently announced U.S. Government approval represents the start of an important new era for GLE and the Silex technology, at a time when nuclear power is coming back into focus as a key source of zero-emissions base load electricity in an emissions constrained world,” Silex CEO and Managing Director Michael Goldsworthy, said.

Gitzel said the new technology could provide a stable source of North American-based uranium enrichment in both Canada and the United States and fast-forward the progress of emerging SMR designs.

“Cameco is committed to responsibly and sustainably managing our business and increasing our contributions to global climate change solutions,” Gitzel said. 

“Our investment in GLE aligns well with these objectives.”