New technology uses lasers to enrich uranium for nuclear power.
Critics say it's approval would hamper nuclear weapons
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
"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 -
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
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,
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.
A single word explains their concern: Khan.
A poor track record on nuclear secrets
Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan, working in the late 1970s for
the European uranium enrichment consortium URENCO, is believed to
have stolen blueprints of the company's gas-centrifuge enrichment
process. By all accounts, Dr. Khan was instrumental in helping
Pakistan build its own enrichment plants to supply material for
bombs. He also sold designs and centrifuge parts to nations that
included Libya, Iran, and North Korea - and offered them to Iraq,
according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Could a future Khan steal the secrets of enriching uranium with
"The safeguarding of the Global Laser Enrichment technology has
been our leadership's most important priority since GE acquired the
exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the technology," said
Jack Fuller, president of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, at a nuclear
security conference last month. GE licensed SILEX from an Australian
company of that name in 2006.
Mr. Fuller's company indicates it might be willing to accept
international inspections if required to do so.
"While we are designing in anticipation that the GLE facility
would be made eligible for [International Atomic Energy Agency]
inspections, the US government will make the final decision" on IAEA
inspections, GE spokeswoman Catherine Stengel wrote in an e-mail.
The government hasn't signaled its intentions regarding such
inspections. The Department of Energy (DOE), State Department, and
Nuclear Regu-la-tory Commission, among others, are monitoring
SILEX's development. At least some officials are confident SILEX
will stay under wraps.
"I find it hard to see how much more scrutiny is needed," says
one DOE official, who oversees classified nuclear information and
spoke on condition of anonymity. "SILEX is classified data. We're
all keeping an eye on them.... Let's let them develop their
technology. Let's see if this works."
SILEX's complexity still an obstacle
Others caution that it's only a matter of time before the secret
"The history of keeping dangerous nuclear technology secret is
pretty poor," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the
Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank.
"An early enrichment approach called 'gaseous diffusion' technology
got out and, after that, so did centrifuge technology. The question
is: How would we handle this when SILEX gets out?"
What prevents a profusion of laser-enrichment plants now is the
complexity of the process. But once SILEX is demonstrated, other
nations with deep pockets are bound to follow, say Mr. Sokolski and
"There can be little question that other states will be strongly
encouraged to follow this lead and develop such technology for their
own use," warned nonproliferation experts in the letter to the NRC.
"Given the great difficulty of detecting laser isotope enrichment
facilities, their spread could undermine US nonproliferation
Efforts to use lasers to enrich uranium date back at least four
decades. A fiendishly difficult technology, laser isotope separation
has worked at the laboratory level but has confounded efforts by at
least 20 countries to make it work on a commercial scale, says
Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists
in Washington, a signatory to the letter to the NRC.
If laser enrichment works, at least a half-dozen countries that
have tried it before - including Russia, France, and Brazil - would
be likely to try it again, he and others say.
"There are many, many things you have to figure out" to make
laser -enrichment work, says Jeffrey Eer-kens, a laser expert in
northern Cali-fornia, one of only a few researchers familiar with
SILEX who can speak on the record about it. Acquiring a powerful
enough infrared laser was a hurdle in the past, but may be no
longer, he says. "If these companies do it," Dr. Eer-kens says,
"it's only a matter of time before others figure it out, too. At
that point, you might as well forget about stopping it."
NRC could step in to evaluate
While many experts call for formal evaluation of SILEX for its
impact on proliferation, that's not part of the NRC's mandate,
documents show. But a senior NRC official says the commission has
evaluated nuclear fuel programs for their proliferation resistance
in the past and still could evaluate SILEX's.
"It is certainly well within our authority as a regulator," NRC
Chairman Gregory Jaczko told the Monitor in a phone interview.
"There may be some other areas [besides those currently being
evaluated that] the commission will take a look into."
SILEX is moving ahead fast. The critical "Phase 1 test loop"
designed to demonstrate the technology's commercial viability is
complete, GE-Hitachi's Fuller said last month. GLE applied last year
for a commercial license that the NRC could grant as early as
January 2012, after which construction could begin.
Commercial use would validate the technology and make it "much
more difficult to dissuade other countries from acquiring this
technology, and may be used as a justification by countries seeking
to hide their enrichment activities," experts warned the NRC in the
Eerkens, who has been invited to attend a scientific conference
in Russia on developments in laser enrichment, echoes that view.
"Yes, there are still engineering problems with SILEX," he says.
"But they [GE-Hitachi] were satisfied that the pilot plant works, so
now they're going big." He cautions, "Twenty years ago the Germans
and everyone in the world were looking at this technology. They will
be again, pretty soon."
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