An August 20 article in the New York Times by William Broad highlights a disturbing advance in the technology to enrich uranium which could have serious proliferation risks.
The new technology uses lasers to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power plants. The idea has been around for a long time, but it has proven too difficult to implement – until now. General Electric (G.E.), in conjunction with Hitachi, has been successfully testing this technology for the past two years, and is now petitioning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a $1 billion dollar plant in Wilmington, N.C.
Center Advisory Board member Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist and former advisor to President Clinton, told Broad that we’re “…on the verge of a new route to the bomb.”
Concerns about the proliferation risks of the technology are not new. The New York Times article refers to a September 30th, 2009 letter spearheaded by the Center and other organizations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission highlighting concerns that the technology could make it easier for other countries to develop clandestine uranium enrichment capabilities that could lead to the development of nuclear weapons (read the letter on our website here). Earlier this year the American Physical Society petitioned the Commission to urging it to make the completion of a proliferation risk assessments a condition of licensing.
Supporters of the technology believe that it will lower the cost of enriching uranium for use in nuclear power plants. They argue that this would make it easier and cheaper to produce the fuel for nuclear power plants.
However, the use of lasers in the enrichment process could also lead to the creation of much smaller and therefore harder to detect enrichment facilities. Such plants would make it difficult for the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that states are complying with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For example, Iran has been working on laser enrichment technology since the 1970’s, but it has kept the results secret. Successful implementation of the technology in the United States would likely encourage Iran, and others, to continue their own research.
This new technology opens the door to increased proliferation. As Dr. von Hippel pointed out “We should have learned enough by now to do an assessment before we let this kind of thing out.” At the very least, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should call for a careful and thorough assessment of the proliferation risks of the technology to ensure a full understanding of it costs and benefits.