- Nuclear Energy
- Expert Workshop Series
The $8 billion global uranium enrichment market is presently dominated by gas centrifuge technology. Although the majority of commercial enrichment services were provided by gaseous diffusion processes less than twenty years ago, virtually all enrichment for nuclear fuel is now done through centrifuges. High separation factors and relatively low energy consumption have made the gas centrifuge the commercial technology of choice, although these same characteristics have also led to proliferation concerns regarding the spread of centrifuge technologies. Laser enrichment technologies, the focus of years and billions of dollars of R&D efforts, have the promise of even greater separation efficiencies and lower energy inputs. Nevertheless, most laser R&D projects were abandoned in the 2000s, and only SILEX has come close to commercialization. Given the issues of scalability with laser processes and the current depressed state of the nuclear fuel market, it is unlikely that laser technologies will displace commercial centrifuges for many years.
Even though centrifuge and laser technologies have garnered the most attention as options for commercial enrichment, both are problematic from a proliferation standpoint—breakout periods range from hours to days and the technical signatures are minimal. In this regard, chemical enrichment processes, such as ion exchange technology developed in Japan, hold great promise. The breakout speeds for ion exchange enrichment are inherently slower—it is estimated that it would take up to thirty years to reach a 20% enrichment level. Furthermore, as the medium of enrichment is an aqueous solution, there are more immediate criticality issues in achieving greater enrichment levels. Additionally, black box arrangements and design features can further enhance the proliferation resistance of chemical enrichment technologies.
From a commercial perspective, chemical enrichment has tremendous potential given its relative simplicity, extremely low energy consumption, and the possibility of advanced ion exchange resins. The commercial prospects and proliferation resistance of chemical enrichment allow it to be a viable option for entrants into the enrichment market, and make its development consistent with the principle of peaceful use.