APS News

New Technique Raises Fears of Nuclear Proliferation

In February APS’s Panel on Public Affairs released a report that outlined steps for reducing the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. At the same time, an emerging uranium enrichment technology shows the difficulties ahead for future nonproliferation efforts.
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The separation of isotopes by laser excitation (SILEX) uses lasers to refine uranium into a usable form. This new technique, developed over the better part of two decades, could make nuclear power slightly cheaper, but could also be used to covertly manufacture nuclear weapons.

In the SILEX process, precisely tuned lasers are shot at raw uranium. Because of the beams’ frequency, they preferentially ionize atoms of uranium-235, which a charged metal plate is then able to attract and collect. Research into the process has been going on at various times in more than twenty countries for over two decades, but the technical difficulties involved led most teams to abandon the research. Recently physicists in Australia successfully developed a workable technique and the process is now being commercialized by a US company. The Global Laser Enrichment subsidiary of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy has applied for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to set up an enrichment plant in North Carolina.

The total amount of energy needed to operate a laser enrichment facility would be a fraction of what current centrifuges use. The concern is that countries looking to surreptitiously enrich uranium and develop nuclear weapons would be able to easily hide these facilities.

Francis Slakey, professor at Georgetown University and APS’s Associate Director of Public Affairs, writing with co-author Linda Cohen of the University of California, said in a recent opinion piece in Nature that, “The world is heading towards the development of nuclear-enrichment technologies so cheap and so small that they would be virtually undetectable by satellites.” In addition they called for the NRC to carry out a non-proliferation assessment of the technology because of its potential to do more harm than good.

APS has not taken a stand on the issue, and does not mention SILEX specifically in its recent Nuclear Downsizing report. More broadly, it does call for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take into account the possible spread of dangerous technology when issuing licenses.

Robert Rosner, a professor at the University of Chicago and former director of Argonne National Laboratory, said that uranium enrichment with SILEX technology would be easy to conceal.

“The other two techniques tend to be energy intensive …and are therefore easily detectable,” Rosner said, adding that this would not the case with laser facilities, which could be hidden because of their smaller sizes and energy needs.

Slakey said that if the technology is developed further, which seems likely, there are steps that can be taken to minimize likelihood of the technology falling into the wrong hands. He said that one of the important criteria for the NRC to take into account when issuing licenses for SILEX is how well its technical information is guarded.

“The primary issue is that we want to make sure the design and discoveries are adequately protected against theft,” he said, adding that historically, nearly all enrichment technologies have been stolen at some point.


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Editor: Alan Chodos