June 29, 2010
APS Physics Files Petition Requesting NRC Change Licensing Rules
Physicists concerned about smaller, more efficient technologies that could be used to build nuclear weapons
"Nuclear Power and Proliferation Resistance: Securing Benefits, Limiting Risks"
"Readiness of the US Nuclear Workforce for 21st Century Challenges"
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The American Physical Society (APS), a leading organization of physicists, has filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requesting the agency change its licensing rules by including a review of the proliferation risks associated with smaller, more efficient nuclear fuel technologies.
“Growing international concerns surrounding the secret development of nuclear weapons, including incidents in Iran and Pakistan, have raised the importance of this issue. With its petition, APS wants to limit the possibility that other countries might develop similar programs by having the NRC formally assess the proliferation risks of these technologies,” said Francis Slakey, associate director of public affairs for APS.
In its recently released report, Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Downsizing,” an APS Study Group found that smaller uranium enrichment technologies could represent proliferation game changers, leading to more efficient methods for production and use of nuclear materials that would be harder to detect. The APS petition cites SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) as an example of such a technology. It carries significant proliferation risks because of its small size and low energy use.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, in a recent National Public Radio interview, commented on SILEX: “It’s a very new technology, or a novel technology…So, I certainly think there may be some things we need to take a look at and make sure we’ve got the right approach to ensuring that kind of protection of the technology and the material.”
The APS petition also states: “Because the NRC will be considering license applications for [enrichment] technologies that will be smaller, more efficient and harder to detect – thus increasing the risk of proliferation – APS considers it timely to request that the NRC rules be amended to formally require non-proliferation assessments as a step in evaluating licenses.
Carrying out the assessments would be consistent with the NRC’s strategic plan to “assure U.S. and international counterparts that proliferation is being appropriately considered and controlled,” the petition adds.
Other groups say advanced technologies pose proliferation risks
The APS Study Group is not the first to conclude that advanced nuclear technologies could pose unique proliferation risks. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which conducts weapons inspections for the United Nations, has established a division to oversee improving detection of smaller technologies. The U.S. National Nuclear Security Agency has also established a research and development program to do the same with an emphasis on laser enrichment.
The APS petition further states that if the designs of advanced technologies are not adequately secured, “there is a risk of repeating the type of breech that led to (rogue scientist) A.Q. Khan taking centrifuge designs to Pakistan – an occurrence that has directly impacted the defense and security decisions of the U.S. government…Therefore, consistent with APS’s publicly stated support of nuclear power and its positions on nuclear non-proliferation, the Society believes its petition for an NRC rule change is in the energy and national security interests of the United States.”
APS has a long and distinguished history of speaking publicly about issues surrounding both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Its involvement with such issues is appropriate given that physicists were centrally involved in the creation of nuclear weapons. They also remain involved in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and the use and development of nuclear power.
Historically, APS has strongly supported nuclear power, but it has also emphasized that nuclear power and nuclear materials must be deployed in a safe, secure and responsible manner. Several of the Society’s public statements address the organization’s position on nuclear issues and the way in which energy security, national security and non-proliferation are coupled.
The American Physical Society (www.aps.org) is a non-profit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy and international activities. APS represents over 51,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories and industry in the United States and throughout the world. Society offices are located in College Park, MD (Headquarters), Ridge, NY, and Washington, DC.