Inside a nondescript warehouse outside Wilmington, N.C., a secret technology that uses powerful lasers to enrich uranium is advancing toward commercialization. It would be a breakthrough that would cut by half the cost of making reactor fuel for nuclear power plants.
"This laser technology would make [uranium] enrichment efforts much harder to detect," says Leonor Tomero, former director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.
Keeping nations from secretly enriching uranium is a cornerstone of US nuclear security. President Obama has tried to block Iran from such clandestine enrichment, and his administration this month has been at the United Nations arguing for a tougher Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 40-year-old pact aimed at halting the spread of nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration has seen the UN meeting, which concludes in New York City Friday, as an opportunity to bolster the treaty by hammering nuclear cheaters and keeping closer tabs on nuclear fuel supplies. But the laser-enrichment technology may damage the US case in the eyes of other nations.
"By showing the world we have a better way of enriching uranium, it becomes very hard for the US to say later, 'Hey, we're doing it, but you should not be doing it,' " says Ms. Tomero, who now works for a congressional committee.
Apart from hints in a handful of documents, most details of Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (SILEX) technology are classified under the Atomic Energy Act. That gives SILEX the same level of secrecy accorded US nuclear weapons.
Based on what is available in public documents, two dozen scientists and nuclear security experts warned in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October that SILEX "poses significant proliferation risks due to difficulties in detecting facilities using this technology."
In detecting uranium enrichment, size – and power consumption – matters.
Today's centrifuge-based uranium enrichment systems require sprawling, football-field-size facilities that consume vast amounts of electricity. Their size and power consumption make them hard to hide. Even so, Iran hid centrifuge facilities inside a mountain for years.
A SILEX system needs much smaller quarters, experts say. Even if visited by international inspectors, a system that uses the laser technology could be easily and covertly converted from producing low-enriched reactor fuel to making highly enriched bomb-grade uranium, they say.
SILEX is being developed by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a joint venture of nuclear energy giants General Electric and Hitachi. Its expected ability to make low-enriched uranium power-plant fuel for half the current cost would be a huge payoff for GE and Hitachi, especially if the Obama administration's hoped-for wave of new nuclear plants materializes.
Before that happens, however, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must evaluate GLE's application to build a commercial SILEX plant. The commission's main focus is on safety, NRC documents show, not proliferation risks.
"We request that the Commission make the potential of this facility to contribute ... to the increased risk of nuclear proliferation an explicit factor in its decision [about licensing a commercial SILEX plant]," eight nonproliferation experts wrote the NRC in September.
In other words, SILEX needs to be carefully evaluated for its potential to foster nuclear proliferation, with an eye to putting more safeguards in place.
A single word explains their concern: Khan.
A poor track record on nuclear secrets
Pakistani metallurgist A.Q. Khan, working in the late 1970s for the European uranium enrichment consortium URENCO, is believed to have stolen blueprints of the company's gas-centrifuge enrichment process. By all accounts, Dr. Khan was instrumental in helping Pakistan build its own enrichment plants to supply material for bombs. He also sold designs and centrifuge parts to nations that included Libya, Iran, and North Korea – and offered them to Iraq, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Could a future Khan steal the secrets of enriching uranium with lasers?
"The safeguarding of the Global Laser Enrichment technology has been our leadership's most important priority since GE acquired the exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the technology," said Jack Fuller, president of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, at a nuclear security conference last month. GE licensed SILEX from an Australian company of that name in 2006.
Mr. Fuller's company indicates it might be willing to accept international inspections if required to do so.
"While we are designing in anticipation that the GLE facility would be made eligible for [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections, the US government will make the final decision" on IAEA inspections, GE spokeswoman Catherine Stengel wrote in an e-mail.
The government hasn't signaled its intentions regarding such inspections. The Department of Energy (DOE), State Department, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, among others, are monitoring SILEX's development. At least some officials are confident SILEX will stay under wraps.
"I find it hard to see how much more scrutiny is needed," says one DOE official, who oversees classified nuclear information and spoke on condition of anonymity. "SILEX is classified data. We're all keeping an eye on them.... Let's let them develop their technology. Let's see if this works."
SILEX's complexity still an obstacle
Others caution that it's only a matter of time before the secret gets out.
"The history of keeping dangerous nuclear technology secret is pretty poor," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. "An early enrichment approach called 'gaseous diffusion' technology got out and, after that, so did centrifuge technology. The question is: How would we handle this when SILEX gets out?"
What prevents a profusion of laser-enrichment plants now is the complexity of the process. But once SILEX is demonstrated, other nations with deep pockets are bound to follow, say Mr. Sokolski and others.
"There can be little question that other states will be strongly encouraged to follow this lead and develop such technology for their own use," warned nonproliferation experts in the letter to the NRC. "Given the great difficulty of detecting laser isotope enrichment facilities, their spread could undermine US nonproliferation efforts."
Efforts to use lasers to enrich uranium date back at least four decades. A fiendishly difficult technology, laser isotope separation has worked at the laboratory level but has confounded efforts by at least 20 countries to make it work on a commercial scale, says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, a signatory to the letter to the NRC.
"There are many, many things you have to figure out" to make laser enrichment work, says Jeffrey Eerkens, a laser expert in northern California, one of only a few researchers familiar with SILEX who can speak on the record about it. Acquiring a powerful enough infrared laser was a hurdle in the past, but may be no longer, he says. "If these companies do it," Dr. Eerkens says, "it's only a matter of time before others figure it out, too. At that point, you might as well forget about stopping it."
NRC could step in to evaluate
While many experts call for formal evaluation of SILEX for its impact on proliferation, that's not part of the NRC's mandate, documents show. But a senior NRC official says the commission has evaluated nuclear fuel programs for their proliferation resistance in the past and still could evaluate SILEX's.
"It is certainly well within our authority as a regulator," NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told the Monitor in a phone interview. "There may be some other areas [besides those currently being evaluated that] the commission will take a look into."
SILEX is moving ahead fast. The critical "Phase 1 test loop" designed to demonstrate the technology's commercial viability is complete, GE-Hitachi's Fuller said last month. GLE applied last year for a commercial license that the NRC could grant as early as January 2012, after which construction could begin.
Commercial use would validate the technology and make it "much more difficult to dissuade other countries from acquiring this technology, and may be used as a justification by countries seeking to hide their enrichment activities," experts warned the NRC in the September letter.
Eerkens, who has been invited to attend a scientific conference in Russia on developments in laser enrichment, echoes that view.
"Yes, there are still engineering problems with SILEX," he says. "But they [GE-Hitachi] were satisfied that the pilot plant works, so now they're going big." He cautions, "Twenty years ago the Germans and everyone in the world were looking at this technology. They will be again, pretty soon."