New Peaceful Nuclear Technology and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation -- the Laser Enrichment Challenge

03/03/2011 01:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has before it a Petition for Rulemaking submitted by the American Physical Society (APS) -- the country's leading professional organization of physicists -- that calls upon the nuclear watchdog to require a "nuclear nonproliferation assessment" in applications to license new enrichment and reprocessing facilities. The petition -- which has a March 8 closing date for public comment -- comes at a time General Electric, in collaboration with Hitachi, plans to build a new enrichment plant in Wilmington, North Carolina early next year.

Normally this sort of undertaking would attract little controversy. However, the Wilmington plant could mark a milestone: the first commercialization of laser enrichment. The result could dramatically lower the costs of nuclear reactor fuel, an important benefit to the growing global atomic energy market. But laser enrichment comes with a potential dark side. The Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation project -- or SILEX as it is known -- has stirred the concern of APS and others in the nonproliferation community. They contend the plant's lower costs, energy requirements and small physical footprint that better allows concealment would provide a new method for countries bent on acquiring nuclear weapons to go forward.

While APS' petition does not necessarily amount to a project killer, strict application of a nonproliferation standard could shutter construction before it gets off the ground. This would not be the first time the U.S. would have abandoned a civil nuclear effort to combat proliferation. During the 1970s and 1980s it halted breeder reactor and civil nuclear reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to set an example for the world. But the efforts failed to stop the likes of Britain, France, Japan, Russia and India from reprocessing civil nuclear fuel.

With this history in mind, a better approach regarding SILEX would be to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to have a permanent co-management and/or monitoring personnel presence as part of a new rigorous oversight standard that would apply to all laser enrichment wherever built worldwide.

Some background clarifies.

Fuel for nuclear reactors does not come out of the ground ready to use. Rather, fuel suppliers must process natural uranium to extract small amounts of the rare fissile U-235 isotope to produce the fuel pellets that reactors use to generate power. Today, the extraction process relies on large energy intensive industrial gaseous diffusion or centrifuge facilities. Typically a power reactor will utilize fuel enriched with 3% U-235, a nuclear weapon 80-90%.

Over the decades efforts continued to develop more economical enrichment techniques for both civil and military purposes. Much research centered on laser enrichment. Using the unique frequencies which atoms vibrate in gaseous form, a laser tuned to the vibrational frequency of a U-235 atom can cause the isotope to behave differently from the heavier U-238 atom to allow harvesting. However, technical difficulties have impeded translation from the laboratory to the commercial or weapons settings despite the efforts of more than a dozen countries since the 1970s.

By 2006, after a quarter century laboratory effort, a small Australian company made sufficient progress to attract GE and Hitachi which licensed SILEX to build the proposed North Carolina plant. Mindful about strategic risks, in February 2010 an APS panel expressed apprehension over proliferation challenges posed by new enrichment plants generally. In late 2010 it submitted the rulemaking petition.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff contends that its current licensing suffices to deal with security questions, but APS responds that "nonproliferation is not given an adequate level of attention." It gets support from NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko who conceded in a July 12, 2010 speech that "the smaller footprint and lower energy needs of the laser enrichment technology have been the cause of concern."

The fact that GE and Hitachi have committed to investing hundreds of millions of dollars to commercialize SILEX suggests that the technology likely will be viable. And even a nuclear proliferation assessment at this point may add some modest safeguards but it appears unlikely to derail the project.

While SILEX may still fail as a commercial venture, we must prepare ourselves for success and the renewed interest in laser enrichment it will stimulate globally. IAEA could get ahead of the curve by playing the proposed managerial or monitoring role. With construction of the SILEX plant looming, it is none to soon for the Agency to consider interfacing with NRC and GE-Hitachi to work out an arrangement to establish a new safeguard precedent. Clearly unfettered or marginally tethered international laser development is something we must avoid to prevent yet more nuclear weapons states in the future.

Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign policy analyst and consultant to the Department of State (Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs), U.S. Senate, Nuclear Control Institute, Global Green and Committee to Bridge the Gap.