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. …