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Will lasers brighten nuclear's future?

New process could replace centrifuges but renew threat of nuclear proliferation.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 2008

Hot Topic: SILEX laser technology could cut by half the cost to produce fuel for nuclear power plants, such as this one in Stedman, Mo.

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Inside a bland industrial building in Wilmington, N.C., an experiment is in the works that could vastly reduce the cost, time, and space needed to make fuel for nuclear power plants and, some nonproliferation experts say, for nuclear bombs as well.

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In that building, secret uranium-enrichment technology licensed by GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy is nearing a pilot test. If successful, the new technology will enable the company to supply low-cost nuclear fuel to power reactors worldwide, officials say.

Only broad outlines of the “Separation of Isotopes by Laser EXcitation,” or SILEX technology, are public. Most details are classified under the Atomic Energy Act.

But it would not take much – just a signal from Wilmington of SILEX’s success in the months ahead – to unleash a global push by companies and nations to develop similar laser-based technology, nonproliferation experts, scientists, and US government studies warn.

“The threat is there,” says Edwin Lyman, a nuclear nonproliferation expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass. “If [GE-Hitachi] succeeds in overcoming remaining technological hurdles, the resulting laser-enrichment would be extremely vulnerable to proliferation. It’s also a technology that several countries would likely pursue.”

Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, is worried about SILEX too. “If it works, it has enormous industrial implications with the US perhaps bringing back all the enrichment services it has lost to Europe and Russia,” he says.

“But how long can you keep this process secret and out of the hands of proliferators? That’s the real question.”

The US Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear power, is not worried.

“Any program to build additional enrichment facilities in the United States will be evaluated for its safety, environmental, and nonproliferation characteristics before it is licensed to operate,” the DOE said in a statement responding to Monitor queries.

Still, SILEX’s success is hardly guaranteed. Laser isotope separation, or “laser enrichment,” is not new. It has a reputation as a fiendishly difficult technology that has defied researchers for decades. Most of the 18 countries that once pursued it have given up.

Jeffrey Eerkens, a laser expert in northern California, is one of the few researchers familiar with many aspects of the SILEX technology. One of the key hurdles has always involved the infrared laser, he says.

“For 20 years, everyone has been trying to find a good 16-micron laser to do uranium enrichment,” he says. “We know how to do the harvesting [of enriched uranium], now it’s the laser.”

Beyond a few trade reports, little attention has been paid to SILEX development, and there seems scant awareness of it in Congress. The US Department of Energy appears bullish on SILEX’s potential to lower the amount of uranium fuel US nuclear power reactors purchase from overseas firms. “Any increase in domestic enrichment capacity will increase US energy self-reliance,” the DOE said in its statement.

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