In fall 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a license to build a state-of-the-art uranium enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. This license allows GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to build its own enrichment facility using classified laser separation technology, which will be the first of its kind in the world.
In nature, uranium exists mostly of two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. U-235 is the main isotope used to generate nuclear power through the process of fission. Natural uranium contains 0.7% of the U-235 isotope and most nuclear power plants require U-235 fuel that has been enriched from 0.7% to 3% to 5%. Isotope separation is a physical process to concentrate (‘enrich’) U-235 relative to U-236. Currently, according to the World Nuclear Association, the main commercial process employed for U-235 enrichment involves gaseous uranium in centrifuges. A 6:48 minute video describing this process is available from the Federation of American Scientists and additional information along with a fact sheet is also available from the NRC’s Uranium Enrichment page.
Laser separation technology, according to the World Nuclear Association, is a “third-generation technology promising “significant economic advantages” over other uranium enrichment processes. According to the NRC, General Electric (GE) currently plans to use the Australian laser enrichment technology known as Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (SILEX) to enrich natural UF6 gas in the uranium-235 isotope in its Wilmington, NC testing facility. While the specific technology of SILEX is classified information, general information about laser separation technologies is available that can be used to introduce your students to this technology.
To learn more visit:
Laser Isotope Separation, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories
Laser Processes,World Nuclear Association (scroll down page to find this section)
Laser uranium enrichment returns from the dead, Laser Focus World Article, October 2011