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To ensure the future of French nuclear industry in the field of enrichment, the French CEA decided to invest in the development of a new process: SILVA - Isotopic Separation by Laser on the Atomic Vapor of uranium. This project is carried out in close cooperation with COGEMA and is aimed at building an industrial facility by 2010 that would require less than one tenth the energy of the present process and that would decrease production costs by a factor between 2 and 3.
SILVA [séparation isotopique par laser de la vapeur atomique d'uranium] is the French acronym for AVLIS, a similar research program in the US, which could lead to the eventual replacement of the energy-intensive gaseous diffusion enrichment process. The Aster laboratory works in close collaboration with the whole team in the Silva project, as well in Saclay as in Valrhô, at Pierrelatte. The work in progress on Silva aim at the demonstration of the process on an industrial scale and over long durations. In addition, the Silva project is one of the programs of common interest (PIC) that the CEA carries out in partnership with Cogema.
Aster provides the designers of the Silva project a true test bench to confront the estimates obtained by calculations with experimental realities. The system includes two separators: the Aldébaran Separator, in operation since 1996, and Andromède, which is smaller and older. Aster includes about fifty lasers [solid state, copper vapor, and dye lasers]. Additional installations consist of a storage are for uranium, a laboratory to analyze the uranium vapor, and a workshop dedicated to the processing of the worn parts coming from the various machines.
In late 1996 the CEA's fuel cycle division successfully completed its first test -- related to enrichment performance-- of the planned series of demonstrations part of the general assessment (scheduled in 1997) of the French laser isotope separation program SILVA . The CEA's scientists were attempting to deplete residual natural uranium down to a 0.2% U235 rate and the result exceeded their best expectations. The ASTER [atomes séparés par des techniques d'évaporation et de rayonnement] pilot laser facility, linked with the Andromède separator (Uranium Vapor Production and Atoms Collection), reached a deplementation down to 0.13% once through.
In late 1997 COGEMA and the South African Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC) agreed to end their joint program on the development of laser enrichment technology. A statement issued by the AEC said the decision to terminate the three-year-old cooperation agreement was caused primarily by its "increasing inability to meet the growing financial requirements of the program." A spokesman for COGEMA said the decision meant that the program would now be gradually dismantled by both partners. However, he said France would continue to work on its own laser-assisted enrichment development program, SILVA. The main aim of the AEC-COGEMA joint program, which was financed equally by both parties, was to evaluate molecular laser isotope separation (MLIS) technology for uranium enrichment on a pilot scale, with a view to possible future application on an industrial scale. MLIS technology had already been under development by the AEC since 1983.
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