Will lasers brighten nuclear's future?
New process could replace centrifuges but renew threat of nuclear proliferation.
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While the State Department was unable to provide an official to speak about SILEX, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is familiar with the technology, having approved the first-step SILEX “test loop” this spring.Skip to next paragraph
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SIDEBAR: How SILEX works
If all goes according to plan, sometime in the next few months a powerful infrared laser will fire into a chamber containing uranium hexafloride gas, according to a description of the laser-isotope-separation (LIS) process in a 2001 analysis by a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The beam will excite U-235, the uranium isotope used to make nuclear fission reactions, and enable them to be separated out.
As the gas is cycled through the beam, the process steadily boosts the concentration of U-235. In the end, what precipitates out is a substance with 3 percent or higher U-235 concentration, enough to qualify as fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.
But with minor modifications, such a system could produce the highly enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons. Because of its relatively low power use and compact space requirements, the technology is a threat, says nonproliferation experts.
The NRC’s primary role is to make sure the process “meets all the health and safety requirements,” says Timothy Johnson, a senior project manager at the NRC’s enrichment and conversion branch. He doesn’t know if SILEX technology has yet been reviewed to assess its “proliferation resistance.”
GE-Hitachi, through its public relations firm, declined to make a spokesman available for this article. But officials have in the past been optimistic about the technology licensed in 2006 from Silex Systems, Ltd., the Australian company that originally developed it.
“GE’s agreement with Silex comes at an ideal time, just as the global nuclear industry is preparing to build new reactors around the world,” Andy White, then president and CEO of GE Energy’s nuclear business, said in a 2006 statement after the rights to the technology were acquired. “We expect the SILEX technology to help us fulfill the industry’s growing fuel demands.”
But all enrichment systems can be altered to produce bomb-grade uranium, something that has worried every US president since the 1960s.
Currently, the dominant method to enrich uranium involves centrifuge technology. Iran’s development of centrifuge enrichment has drawn condemnations from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the US, and European nations.
If SILEX is successful, GE-Hitachi could produce low-enriched uranium fuel for power plants at half the cost of centrifuge-based technology, Dr. Eerkens says.
While a boon to the struggling US nuclear fuel enrichment industry, a SILEX success would press other nations to seek laser enrichment, often called LIS, to stay competitive, nonproliferation experts say.
“Once you’ve solved the problem, everyone knows it can be done,” says Charles D. Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has studied SILEX. “France and Russia will pay particular attention because they are competing with the US in fuel services.”