Laser isotope separation (LIS) is starting to gain attention in the nonproliferation community because Global Laser Enrichment, a partnership led by GE-Hitachi, plans to use LIS in its proposed uranium enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently reviewing a license request for the facility.
At this point, it appears that economics is the main driver behind LIS. While avenues that make power generation cheaper are understandably alluring, the Unites States ought to first stop and check for hazards before it dives headfirst into LIS.
Since LIS is difficult for the IAEA to detect due to smaller facilities, lower energy consumption, and the potential for increased economic efficiency vis-à-vis other enrichment methods, the spread of LIS as a form of uranium enrichment constitutes a proliferation risk.
LIS can be conducted in the type of non-industrial-sized facility which might go undetected by signals intelligence, whereas current methods can be spotted from satellites. According to technical experts, if scientists were given adequate time – 1 or 2 years – they could produce enough uranium for a nuclear weapon using the LIS method even without the benefit of an industrial-sized LIS plant. The combination of potential imperceptibility and a short timeline raises the specter of an aspiring nuclear weapons state developing a breakout capability before the international community even knew covert enrichment was occurring.
By providing implicit economic incentives, the incorporation of LIS technology into the U.S. nuclear fuel fabrication process may encourage other nations to incorporate this technology into their own domestic fuel production industries. The commercialization of LIS is likely to bring the technology to market, whether it is in the style of NASDAQ or A.Q. Khan.
On the other hand, if the United States can adjust the cost-benefit calculations of nations looking to start or expand their nuclear programs by building economies of scale around less proliferation-sensitive technologies, it will be able to profit from the expansion of nuclear power while not encouraging clandestine enrichment activity.
The Center recently has done a lot of work on LIS, including sending letters to both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Hill on the proposed North Carolina facility. At a recent briefing the Center organized with CNS, James Acton noted that with the rebirth of the nuclear industry, it is imperative that more attention be paid to proliferation-sensitive technologies such as LIS.
Acton outlines the self-monitoring that needs to take place, referring to it as “technological restraint,” in his new article in Survival. He argues that the negative externalities of producing nuclear power are too often dismissed. Just as carbon cap-and-trade programs are attempting to incorporate a negative externality into the fossil-fuel energy industry, so should the proliferation risks of sensitive technology be incorporated into the nuclear power business. Until such incorporation occurs, Acton concludes, the government and the people will continue to bear the costs.
For more information on LIS, read the Los Alamos primer on Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (SILEX).