Will Secret Technology Help Rogue Nations Get Nuclear Weapons?

Article excerpt

New technology uses lasers to enrich uranium for nuclear power. Critics say it's approval would hamper nuclear weapons nonproliferation goals.

Inside a nondescript warehouse outside Wilmington, N.C., a secret technology that uses powerful lasers to enrich uranium is advancing toward commercialization. It would be a breakthrough that would cut by half the cost of making reactor fuel for nuclear power plants.

Yet it also is stoking worries about nuclear security. If this know-how ever leaks out, nonproliferation experts warn, rogue nations would find it much easier to make atom-bomb fuel in total secrecy.

"This laser technology would make [uranium] enrichment efforts much harder to detect," says Leonor Tomero, former director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non- Proliferation in Washington.

Keeping nations from secretly enriching uranium is a cornerstone of US nuclear security. President Obama has tried to block Iran from such clandestine enrichment, and his administration this month has been at the United Nations arguing for a tougher Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, the 40-year-old pact aimed at halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration has seen the UN meeting, which concludes in New York City Friday, as an opportunity to bolster the treaty by hammering nuclear cheaters and keeping closer tabs on nuclear fuel supplies. But the laser-enrichment technology may damage the US case in the eyes of other nations.

"By showing the world we have a better way of enriching uranium, it becomes very hard for the US to say later, 'Hey, we're doing it, but you should not be doing it,' " says Ms. Tomero, who now works for a congressional committee.

Apart from hints in a handful of documents, most details of Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (SILEX) technology are classified under the Atomic Energy Act. That gives SILEX the same level of secrecy accorded US nuclear weapons.

Based on what is available in public documents, two dozen scientists and nuclear security experts warned in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October that SILEX "poses significant proliferation risks due to difficulties in detecting facilities using this technology."

In detecting uranium enrichment, size - and power consumption - matters.

Today's centrifuge-based uranium enrichment systems require sprawling, football-field-size facilities that consume vast amounts of electricity. Their size and power consumption make them hard to hide. Even so, Iran hid centrifuge facilities inside a mountain for years.

A SILEX system needs much smaller quarters, experts say. Even if visited by international inspectors, a system that uses the laser technology could be easily and covertly converted from producing low- enriched reactor fuel to making highly enriched bomb-grade uranium, they say.

SILEX is being developed by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a joint venture of nuclear energy giants General Electric and Hitachi. Its expected ability to make low-enriched uranium power-plant fuel for half the current cost would be a huge payoff for GE and Hitachi, especially if the Obama administration's hoped-for wave of new nuclear plants materializes.

Before that happens, however, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must evaluate GLE's application to build a commercial SILEX plant. The commission's main focus is on safety, NRC documents show, not proliferation risks.

"We request that the Commission make the potential of this facility to contribute ... to the increased risk of nuclear proliferation an explicit factor in its decision [about licensing a commercial SILEX plant]," eight nonproliferation experts wrote the NRC in September.

In other words, SILEX needs to be carefully evaluated for its potential to foster nuclear proliferation, with an eye to putting more safeguards in place. …