Regulators approve GE Hitachi's license for uranium enrichment facility


Federal regulators on Tuesday cleared the way for a proposal to build the first commercial laser uranium enrichment facility, which would be located in Castle Hayne.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license to GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) to construct and operate a uranium enrichment plant using laser technology to provide fuel for nuclear power generation.

Company officials, however, said Tuesday they must next make a commercialization decision about the project, which would be based on several factors.

Still, Chris Monetta, president and CEO of GLE, called receiving the license “a tremendous accomplishment.”

“The technology we’ve developed could be one of the keys to the nation’s long-term energy security,” he said in a statement. “At a minimum, it could provide a steady supply of uranium enriched right here in the U.S. to the country’s nuclear reactors.”

He pointed out those reactors now supply about 20 percent of the country’s electricity.

Company officials asked to build the facility at their headquarters, a 1,600-acre site in Castle Hayne. The proposed plant would use lasers to enrich natural UF6 gas into the uranium-235 (U-235) isotope, with the low-enriched uranium to be used as fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors.

The target capacity of 6 million work units per year at the facility would be enough to power 42 nuclear reactors annually, officials have said.

In an interview with the Greater Wilmington Business Journal this summer as the NRC held hearings on the project, Monetta said that if the facility moved forward, it would create a significant number of jobs.

He said about 680 construction jobs would be created to build the facility, with another 350 new long-term facility operation jobs created after it came online.

GE Hitachi already employs 1,800 at its Castle Hayne complex; another 600 people work for GE Aviation at an adjacent plant.

GLE first submitted its license application for the proposed project in 2009. That was followed by safety and environmental reviews of the proposed facility, according to the NRC.

Reports from NRC staffers concluded the facility would not present a health or safety risk to workers or the public as well as no significant environmental impacts to prevent licensing, an NRC press release stated.

During the NRC’s review, several public meetings were held in the Wilmington area. The federal agency also intends to hold another public meeting in Wilmington before any construction were to begin on the facility to explain oversight plans to the public, and NRC staff would conduct inspections during the construction and operation of the facility, according to Tuesday’s release.