APS News

Congressional Letter Backs APS Bid to Curb Proliferation

Members of Congress have joined the American Physical Society in calling for tighter protection of isotope refinement technology to prevent nuclear proliferation. In an open letter addressed to the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a bipartisan collection of six House members called for the commission to carry out nuclear proliferation assessments for any company seeking to license nuclear technology to prevent its further spread. The letter was sent at the same time that APS is petitioning the NRC for the same types of changes.

Currently the NRC conducts nonproliferation assessments for any foreign company licensing American nuclear refinement technology, while United States companies are not subject to such a review. The congressional letter and APS are both calling for the NRC to complete nonproliferation assessments for domestic companies as well.

“We believe that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should take all appropriate actions to ensure that the nuclear technologies they license are not diverted to uses that could threaten the security interest of the United States,” the letter reads, “We are writing to express our support for including a nonproliferation assessment as part of the process for evaluating license applications.

The APS petition goes further and contains specific recommendations for changes to regulatory language. It states also that “Carrying out nonproliferation assessments as part of the NRC licensing process is consistent with the Strategic Plan’s intent to assure US and international counterparts that proliferation is being appropriately considered and controlled.”

The congressional letter does not reference the APS petition specifically, but does cite the Society’s recent Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Arsenal Downsizing report.

Proponents for these assessments are concerned that individuals working within the companies might act irresponsibly and transfer the technology to foreign nations. The assessments would pinpoint potential security risks within a company applying for a refinement license.

“You may think you don’t proliferate but there may be someone on your staff who does,” said Francis Slakey, associate director of public affairs for APS, “The problem is that [the companies] don’t proliferate, but in the case of Urenco, A.Q. Kahn did,” referring to the Pakistani scientist who stole nuclear secrets from a Netherlands uranium enrichment facility and sold them on the black market. Khan is referenced in the congressional letter sent to the Chairman of the NRC.

The concern about proliferation was prompted in part also by a new refinement technology that has recently been perfected. As APS News reported in June, the Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation, or SILEX, is making opponents of nuclear proliferation nervous because of how difficult it would be to detect. The technology uses lasers to excite atoms of uranium-235, and requires less energy and space than conventional methods of refinement, making it easier to conceal. The fear is that a country or other entity could get hold of the technology and create weapons-grade uranium in secret.

The commission did not have a prepared response to the congressional letter by press time. However past responses to similar requests indicate that the NRC is hesitant to take on the additional task of conducting nonproliferation assessments for US companies.

Responding to a request earlier this year by the organization Friends of the Earth for a nonproliferation assessment of SILEX technology, the commission said that, “[t]he NRC considers a nuclear nonproliferation impact assessment to be outside the scope of the agency’s statutory responsibilities.” The response said also that existing licensing requirements for the handling of classified information, nuclear material accountability, and the protection of the physical technology accomplish the same goals that a nonproliferation assessment would.

Richard Meserve, current president of the Carnegie Institution for Science and former chairman of the NRC said that he felt that nonproliferation assessments fell within the NRC’s responsibilities and that the commission will respond positively to being asked directly by Congress.  

“I’m a little surprised at that,” Meserve said when asked about the NRC’s past reticence to conduct nonproliferation assessments on domestic companies, “I think that people [in the NRC] are legitimately worried about the proliferation issues associated with nuclear technologies.”

The bipartisan letter was signed by four Democrats, John Spratt of South Carolina, Andre Carson of Indiana, Bill Foster of Illinois and Adam Schiff of California, as well as two Republicans, Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Doug Lamborn of Colorado.

“For years, there has been a broad consensus that a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon is the gravest threat facing our nation,” said Schiff, “Given the evolution of nuclear technology, it is critical that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission includes a nonproliferation assessment as part of the process for evaluating license applications. Doing so could provide an additional and perhaps crucial layer of protection against the proliferation of nuclear technologies that could be diverted and used against the US.”

Fortenberry echoed these sentiments, “A. Q. Khan’s clandestine proliferation networks taught us that we can never be too careful.  The possibility that, despite the best of intentions, this very secretive and sensitive technology could leak internationally and be ramped up to produce weapons-grade material should prompt the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to robustly fulfill its original mandate by assessing nuclear proliferation risks as part of evaluating license applications.”

Members of Congress have been working with the NRC looking at ways for the commission to include nonproliferation assessments. Legislation has been one method discussed though it is unclear at press time when or if such legislation may be introduced.

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Editor: Alan Chodos