Will lasers brighten nuclear's future?
New process could replace centrifuges but renew threat of nuclear proliferation.
(Page 3 of 3)
But industry experts dismiss the idea that other countries will ramp up research if the “test loop” sees success.Skip to next paragraph
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“Just because it’s been done doesn’t mean another country can do it if they have a few extra dollars,” says Julian Steyn, president of Energy Resources International, Washington-based nuclear-fuel consultants. “I don’t think it’s a major proliferation-prone technology in the right hands.”
“Once LIS is known to work on the pilot-plant scale, research and development can be expected to intensify in several technically advanced countries,” a 1977 report on nuclear proliferation by the US Office of Technology Assessment found. “Some of these countries would probably develop LIS 5 to 10 years after a US demonstration.”
SILEX’s development has been long and tortuous. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the US spent about $2 billion trying but failing to develop an LIS system, Mr. Ferguson says. In 1999, however, President Clinton signed an agreement with the Australian government to bring SILEX technology developed there to the US. In 2001, the US Department of Energy declared certain SILEX information to be “restricted data.”
Then, in October 2006, GE Energy’s nuclear business announced it had reached a deal with Silex Systems to develop the technology.
“Government authorizations” were obtained when GE-Hitachi licensed the technology in 2006, the company said. This week it reiterated that SILEX, which it has dubbed Global Laser Enrichment, has federal clearance and oversight.
“Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) has obtained the required security clearance from the NRC, which dictates a security program to safeguard information,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
As SILEX moves into its testing phase, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is confident its procedures will keep vital data safe. Marvin Miller is less certain of that. A retired MIT researcher, he prepared classified government studies in the 1980s about the proliferation threat posed by the same type of laser-enrichment process now coming to fruition as SILEX.
“Laser isotope separation has not been a proliferation threat because it hasn’t worked before,” he says. “Now, if you can get SILEX to work, it would indeed be a proliferation concern.”
Eerkens, who has pursued similar laser-enrichment technology, is concerned about SILEX or other laser technology as a proliferation threat.
It would, he says, obviously be “easier to hide 20 or 30 lasers than 10,000 centrifuges.” One thing he is certain about: In coming months, every scrap of information about SILEX will get plenty of scrutiny from outside US borders. If GE-Hitachi moves ahead with a commercial-scale SILEX plant as the company says it wants to do next year, it will be a sure sign the test was a success.
“The Russians, the French, the enrichment companies – they’re all watching to see if SILEX is working,” Eerkens says.