Is a step towards laser enrichment a step back for nuclear non-proliferation?

Jan 12 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Gabriele Loche, London

Collecting sufficient quantities of fissile material is often considered the most challenging step towards acquiring nuclear weapons. As such, controlling the techniques used for accumulating highly-enriched uranium is a crucial aspect of nuclear non-proliferation. Laser enrichment, a third-generation technology offering a cheap and efficient route to enriched uranium, has recently moved one step closer to becoming a commercially-viable reality. Provided this technological development reaches a successful conclusion, it is worth considering the potential proliferation risks involved. What could both national and international authorities put in place, in terms of verification and safeguarding, to mitigate the risks posed?

General Electric (GE) has recently announced that it has successfully completed small-scale tests of a laser-enrichment technique named SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation). This faster and cheaper technique is based on a principle of photo-dissociation, whereby a specially-tuned laser is used to break molecular bonds and separate particular isotopes of uranium. As they move towards the first commercial SILEX plant, concerns regarding the potential elicit military exploitation of such a technique are all the more pertinent.

A brief history of SILEX
The origins of SILEX can be traced back to 1992, when Australia’s Silex Systems began testing the technology. By 2006 GE had signed a deal with Silex Systems to enhance cooperation in the development of SILEX. After forming an alliance with Hitachi in 2007, the two companies under the title GE-Hitachi (GE-H) began testing SILEX in 2008. Their venture, known as Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), managed to realise a small-scale test loop, which was soon developed to become a larger test cascade. These experiments, conducted at a GE-H research facility near Wilmington, North Carolina, managed to reach a successful conclusion last year, successfully meeting both performance and reliability criteria.

With this success under their belt, the company is now working towards commercialising the entire process. If all goes according to plan, GE-H may begin work on an industrial-scale SILEX facility next year. The proposed facility would most likely begin full-scale enrichment by 2014, with a capacity somewhere between 3.5 and 6 million separative work units (SWU, a measure of separation capacity proportional to the energy consumed). At full capacity, this facility could provide fuel for up to 42 reactors per year, for 40 years. In comparison, the total separation capacity of the entire URENCO group in 2010 stood at 12 million SWU.

The future of SILEX
There is an important hurdle to cross before this plant can become a reality. Under the US Atomic Energy Act, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must provide GE-H with a license before they can begin construction. In order to grant the license, the NRC has to issue an Environmental Impact Statement and a Safety Evaluation Report. The NRC is also required to conduct hearings in which members of the public can raise any environmental or security-related concerns they might have. The outcomes of these two stages are then included in a final statement assessing a plant’s impact on public health and safety, and on the environment. During construction, the NRC is also required to inspect the facility in order to verify the adherence to the license itself. This whole process usually takes up to 18 months, eventually leading to the final license. During 2009 GE-H completed the application submission to the NRC in order to achieve the license for its $1 billion and 600,000 square-foot commercial plant. The NRC was expected to make its final judgement by December 2011. However, despite conducting public hearings in which no petitions were made, they have yet to release their Environmental Impact Statement. Originally planned for last February, it is now expected for February 2012, while the final green-light license could arrive in September 2012. In explaining this delay, the NRC has cited only rather unspecific “safety” reasons. Could other concerns aside from public health, safety and the environment come to influence the passage of the GE-H license?

Separating the pros and cons of SILEX
While the new technology presents many benefits for peaceful civilian nuclear programmes, these can swiftly become drawbacks when placed in the wrong hands. Advocates are keen to highlight the lower costs and higher efficiency associated with laser enrichment. Compared to gas centrifuge systems, SILEX could potentially be significantly cheaper, simpler to implement and far more productive. Once the technology has been mastered, SILEX could well allow for much smaller, more efficient, enrichment facilities. It is exactly this prospect which worries a number of analysts and scientists. When exploited for covert military purposes, SILEX could be extremely hard to detect and safeguard.

Iran has already undertaken small-scale laser enrichments tests, starting in the Seventies, and have kept the outcomes hidden. China, India, Iraq, Russia, Japan and Pakistan are all believed to have undertaken similar efforts. It is quite possible that some of these states may be inspired by GE-H’s successful tests to strengthen their research, and more may begin to explore the technology. The possibility that some states may eventually pursue research and development beyond IAEA safeguards cannot be ignored, and such concerns will eventually have to be addressed.

The American Physical Society (APS) has presented a report highlighting the risk of encouraging research on laser enrichment when it could complicate efforts to detect covert facilities. Following this, in June 2010 the APS asked the NRC to bolster its license considerations by requiring a proliferation risk assessment, alongside the current safety and environmental inquiries, before providing a license. Although GE-H has carried out an independent nuclear proliferation assessment, it has not communicated the results to the NRC. As pointed out by Timothy Johnson, NRC licensing project manager for the Wilmington facility, requesting such information goes beyond the jurisdiction of the NRC.

GLE President Christopher Monetta maintains that concerns related to proliferation risks are overrated. As SILEX technology is very advanced and still to be fully tested, it requires both high-profile expertise and consistent capital resources to be implemented. Furthermore, fuel produced by GLE should be enriched to a far lower extent than that required for nuclear weapons (around 4% compared to 80-90%). Last but not least, the process is subject to commercial protection and an agreement between Australia and the US on information restriction. Donald Kerr, former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory suggests that laser enrichment would be unlikely to be illicitly achieved. Furthermore, any covert attempt to replicate the proposed GLE plant at Wilmington would be easily uncovered, given the probable size of such a venture.

An unsolved question
However, this argument would only be fully satisfactory if states pursue Wilmington-like projects. Domestic research could lead to systems of any size and complexity. Critics affirm that the Wilmington plant would allegedly generate fissile material for 1,000 bombs each year. Thus, even a small clandestine laser-enrichment facility could produce fuel for a significant number of nuclear weapons, and it would be harder to detect. With a smaller physical footprint and increased use of dual-use technologies, gaining even a small awareness of suspicious laser enrichment activities may be challenging for the IAEA. Especially when dealing with states without the Additional Protocol. If states were to pursue domestic laser enrichment programmes, unrelated to the work of GLE, arguments comparing the two will provide little comfort. So too will the October revelation that GLE had been fined $45,000 by the NRC due to a “significant lack of management attention”.

How then should the benefits of laser enrichment be realised while controlling the risks? Drawing inspiration from technological improvements and pursuing further ones should not be forbidden in advance, especially when for peaceful purposes. History has shown that controlling the spread of technological innovation is challenging at best. It seems that requiring a comprehensive and thorough assessment of the proliferation risks needs to be an essential innovation for NRC licensing. Having an independent assessment of internal information control systems could go some way towards alleviating the concerns of proliferation directly related to the GLE project.

Although the IAEA has a lot of experience in identifying and exposing covert gas centrifuge programmes, it has little experience in uncovering covert laser enrichment programmes. The recent successes of GE-H in laser enrichment goes to show that the technology will most likely become commercially-viable in the near future. The Agency must be prepared accordingly.

Last changed: Jan 12 2012 at 11:58 PM




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