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Closely Held Report Discounts Proliferation Risk of Lasers for Making Nuclear Fuel

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

A roadway marker points to nuclear fuel operations at a GE-Hitachi campus in Wilmington, N.C., the proposed site of a laser enrichment plant awaiting federal licensing. A laser-based approach is no more likely to spread internationally than centrifuge enrichment technology already in use, according to a 2010 proliferation risk assessment commissioned by the company (Tom Clements/Alliance for Nuclear Accountability). A roadway marker points to nuclear fuel operations at a GE-Hitachi campus in Wilmington, N.C., the proposed site of a laser enrichment plant awaiting federal licensing. A laser-based approach is no more likely to spread internationally than centrifuge enrichment technology already in use, according to a 2010 proliferation risk assessment commissioned by the company (Tom Clements/Alliance for Nuclear Accountability).

WASHINGTON -- An unreleased proliferation risk assessment, commissioned by nuclear energy giant GE-Hitachi, found in 2010 that a capability to use lasers for enriching uranium -- a potential route for building atomic weapons -- is no more likely to spread globally than today’s centrifuge enrichment approach (see GSN, May 16).

The GE-Hitachi “Global Laser Enrichment” technology -- which the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission could license for initial commercial use at a Wilmington, N.C., facility in September -- “is beyond the technical and possibly financial capability of most proliferation states, and of all potential nonstate proliferators,” according to the seven-page document reviewed by Global Security Newswire.

Even that somewhat upbeat evaluation, though, might be regarded in some quarters as cold comfort following surprise discoveries of a hidden centrifuge facility at Qum, Iran, in 2009 and a centrifuge enrichment capability in North Korea a year later (see GSN, Sept. 25, 2009 and Nov. 22, 2010). Neither effort is believed to have been detected by the international community using technical means, but rather through human intelligence or voluntary disclosure.

Uranium enrichment can be used for peaceful power generation but also holds the potential to make bomb-grade material.

With illicit centrifuge plants already challenging-to-impossible to detect, there are mounting worries that a U.S. move to commercialize laser enrichment could trigger new research worldwide on a yet-more-concealable process potentially capable of manufacturing weapon-usable uranium.

The closely held risk assessment played down any such danger.

“Development and deployment of laser enrichment technology by [GE-Hitachi] will not present an undue risk of proliferation of enrichment technology,” states the report, arguing that laser enrichment secrets are well protected, the process is detectable by outsiders, and technical and financial barriers make its spread unlikely.

Produced by a three-member expert panel describing itself as “independent,” the appraisal sharply contests apprehensions among scientists and issue experts that a nation interested in covertly enriching uranium to produce nuclear weapons could find lasers easier to hide than centrifuges. 

GE-Hitachi has invested in the technology because of its potential to reduce the cost of enrichment by using a smaller industrial facility “footprint” and consuming less energy than today’s processes.  The company intends to sell the enriched uranium as fuel for commercial nuclear energy reactors worldwide.  It is unclear to many scientists how conducive the laser process would be for producing highly enriched uranium usable in weapons, and neither GE-Hitachi nor the risk assessment directly address that question.

“Easier to Detect”

A more limited detection “signature” would not make a laser enrichment facility invisible, according to the 2010 report.

In fact, “a laser enrichment plant might be easier to detect” than a centrifuge plant, according to the panel, composed of Donald Kerr, a former principal deputy national intelligence director; Gordon Oehler, who formerly directed the CIA’s Nonproliferation Center; and Susan Koch, a nonproliferation and arms control specialist who has served on the White House National Security Council staff.

The three issue specialists conceded that the laser process could require less physical space and use less power, which would seem to make a secret facility less detectable to the outside world.  They said, however, that the size of a laser enrichment plant would continue to be “significant” -- it will cover roughly 100 acres at the Wilmington location -- and its reduced power requirements would remain “substantial,” making external detection feasible.

That might not be saying much, according to R. Scott Kemp, who until last year served as a State Department science adviser for nonproliferation and arms control.

“Centrifuge facilities already consume too little electricity to distinguish them from non-nuclear facilities,” he said.  “A centrifuge plant consumes less electricity per square foot than a grocery store, and a proliferation-scale plant can be easily run off of a diesel backup generator.  If [laser enrichment] uses even less electricity, then there is no hope of detecting such a facility based on electricity consumption.”

The emerging laser process would also “require a wide range of technology-specific equipment and materials whose procurement and delivery will produce unique signatures,” according to the panel report, which offered few explicit clues about telltale signs.

The panel also noted that the transfer of uranium hexafluoride in and out of a laser enrichment production plant would be about the same as that for a similarly capable facility using today’s technologies -- centrifuge or gaseous diffusion.

These assertions, too, drew expert criticism.  Kemp noted that detection of materials or parts procurement can often be foiled through the use of front companies or technological substitutes.

“There is no evidence in the text to bear out the conclusion that laser enrichment would be at least as easy to detect as centrifuge enrichment,” said James Acton, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, who reviewed lengthy excerpts.  “In fact, the evidence presented -- smaller footprint, smaller electricity demand -- suggests precisely the opposite.”

He and other expert sources said it would be useful for the U.S. government to understand -- in greater detail than that provided by the report prepared for GE-Hitachi -- any observable signatures unique to laser enrichment.  No more-detailed or classified version of the Kerr panel assessment is known to exist.

The unclassified proliferation risk assessment is relatively short, with three of its seven pages dedicated to career biographies of the three panelists.  GE-Hitachi voluntarily solicited the evaluation and submitted it to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as its license application was under review.  A number of lawmakers and issue experts have called for such proliferation risk assessments to become a mandatory part of the U.S. license application process for new nuclear technologies or processes (see GSN, April 5).

The Kerr report argues that given the steep challenges presented by the laser process, a foreign nation is more likely to opt for a centrifuge approach if it seeks an illicit nuclear weapons capability.  Issues experts largely agreed this would be the case for the near term, but they worry more about what happens in another decade or two.

“The single greatest barrier to the proliferation of this technology is the significantly greater technological difficulty it presents compared to centrifuge enrichment,” according to the assessment text. 

It did not elaborate in any detail, but stated that the commercial process planned by GE-Hitachi “is uniquely complex, requiring close, precise integration of several different technologies and high levels of specific technical expertise.”

A high financial price tag could also be a barrier to laser enrichment proliferation, the Kerr team argued.  No mention is made in the text regarding particular nations potentially interested in becoming nuclear armed, such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which has signaled it might seek its own atomic deterrent against Iran and Israel (see GSN, Dec. 5, 2011).

“Plant construction will require major capital costs,” the risk assessment reads.  “[GE-Hitachi] aims to reduce its operating costs below those of centrifuge enrichment.  However those costs would still be sizeable, and efficiencies compared to the ones envisioned by [the Global Laser Enrichment effort] would almost certainly be beyond the reach of most proliferators.”

“The process itself is complex and virtually unknown,” GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy spokesman Christopher White said this week in a written response to questions.  “[Our] ability to succeed will be based on the application of critical experts, complex technologies and significant investment.”

Some issue experts criticized the Kerr risk assessment for appearing to assume that a nation interested in laser enrichment for covert purposes would build a facility on the scale and intricacy of GE-Hitachi’s planned commercial plant, and would fail to hide any unique signatures associated with laser enrichment.

“Comparing a commercial facility to a proliferation challenge is apples and oranges,” said Kemp, now an associate research scholar at Princeton University.

“A proliferator would use a much smaller facility,” he said.  “Furthermore, a proliferator might also avoid particularly exotic implementations or technologies that are needed to make the plant commercially attractive, but which are not needed for a more rudimentary weapon-making capability.”

A proliferator nation might be able to derive enough highly enriched uranium from a small, concealed laser facility for one bomb in roughly a single year’s time, according to some experts who asked not to be named in discussing sensitive technologies.

The risk assessment said there would be “multiple observable signatures associated with the [Global Laser Enrichment] technology,” without naming them.

Frank von Hippel, a former assistant director for national security in the White House Science and Technology Office, said “there may be electromagnetic signatures associated with the pulsing of the lasers, but an analysis would be required to see how easily they could be shielded.”

White would not address a question about laser pulsing, saying it would be “inappropriate and premature to discuss specific details of what a commercial facility could look like or signatures that could be present.”

The company spokesman did say, though, that “there are significant signatures from any type of enrichment facility, laser or otherwise, that are detectable.” 

No unique physical features that could be detected from outside facility gates or by spy satellites -- such as a cooling tower at a nuclear reactor -- are publicly known to be associated with either laser or centrifuge enrichment, Kemp said.

Copycat Technologies?

If the proposed GE-Hitachi facility is successful, “its very existence will signal to the world that [laser enrichment] is a technology worth pursuing,” Kemp said.

The Kerr assessment sought to counter this view, which is widely shared by scientists and nonproliferation specialists.

“Proliferant states might well seek to emulate” any future GE-Hitachi achievement in using lasers to enrich uranium in an industrial setting, following several test successes to date in research facilities, the report concedes.  “However,” it continues, “their chances of success would be low given the security, intelligence, technical and financial barriers.”

White, the GE-Hitachi spokesman, said it was simply hard to imagine that a nation interested in secretly enriching uranium would take on the huge challenges posed by the laser approach.

“With nothing to be gained from the consideration of detectability and facing significant technology hurdles, it is highly conceivable that a proliferator would choose to spend time and money on other existing enrichment methods rather than laser enrichment,” he said.

Yet, nations do not always pursue the cheapest or seemingly easiest route to technical advancement, Kemp said.  Rather, they tend to move in a certain direction based on the particular circumstances they face.

“When it comes down to specific instances of proliferation, sometimes a particular pathway is closed to a state, but another is open,” he said.  “States don’t always go for the most technically simple route.”

If similar enrichment approaches do spread elsewhere, Washington is in a good position to find out, the Kerr appraisal argues.

“The fact that the technology is developed and deployed by a U.S. company will provide the U.S. government with a more detailed, and earlier, knowledge of detection signatures than it could acquire otherwise,” according to the proliferation risk assessment, which does not directly address the downsizing or countermeasures that operators of an illicit facility might employ.

Asked whether at least a small number of nations might find laser enrichment feasible and attractive for a clandestine effort, White said: “Speculating on what a proliferator nation may be interested in is not the purview of [Global Laser Enrichment].”

Kemp said the U.S. government could more fully assess how a laser enrichment program might be scaled down and hidden abroad if it built and studied a low-budget model effort of this sort at one of the Energy Department’s national laboratories.  The federal government undertook a similar exploration of centrifuge proliferation and detection possibilities beginning in 1960, he said.

Limits on Information

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission to date has refused to release the unclassified GE-Hitachi commissioned analysis on the basis that it contains “sensitive proprietary information.”

However, several issue experts who have reviewed the entire document or extended excerpts said they were unable to identify in the text any trade secrets or information not already available to the public.  All agreed that had sensitive information actually been included in the assessment, they would have discouraged public dissemination to avoid releasing proprietary material or breaching security.

This week, neither the nuclear agency nor GE-Hitachi spokesmen would generally describe the kind of information included in the assessment that is considered proprietary to the company. 

A September 2010 affidavit by Jerald Head, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy America’s vice president for regulatory affairs, said the Kerr assessment includes trade secrets that, for example, could disclose “a process, method or apparatus” that might give the company’s unlicensed competitors a market advantage or violate GE-Hitachi patents.

“Public disclosure of the information sought to be withheld is likely to cause substantial harm to [GE-Hitachi’s] competitive position and foreclose or reduce the availability of profit-making opportunities,” the statement reads.

Still, von Hippel, a Princeton University professor of public and international affairs, said he saw nothing in reading extended passages of the panel report that “should be considered proprietary.”

In fact, several of the panel’s publicly withheld findings, described in this article, also appeared in GE-Hitachi’s response this week to a reporter’s questions.  Those include references to laser proliferation risk compared to centrifuge enrichment, detectability of the process, and technical and financial barriers to developing or operating such a facility.

Von Hippel said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- in denying requests to make public even a redacted version of the assessment -- has extended too much deference to the industry it is charged with overseeing.

“The fact that the NRC is so protective of the companies that it regulates and gives so little weight to the public interest in critical developments appears to be just one more example of regulatory capture,” he said.

David McIntyre, a commission spokesman, this week would not comment on expert concerns about the agency’s January 2011 decision not to disclose any part of the risk assessment document, save the three panelist biographies. 

In U.S. Hands

Acton said perhaps the best argument put forth for GE-Hitachi laser enrichment to proceed is that a failure to win a U.S. license could allow rights to the process to revert back to Australia, where it originated.  From there, control over the secret process -- called “Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation “or “SILEX” for short -- could be sold elsewhere around the globe.

“If the technology reverted to another government or firm in another country, it might be subject to less strict controls than it is under U.S. government or [Global Laser Enrichment] requirements,” the panel report asserts.

“The key question is whether the U.S. government could use its diplomatic muscle to ensure the Australian government did not give … permission to export the technology elsewhere,” Acton said.  “I suspect that the U.S. government would succeed if it tried.”

Spokesmen for the State Department did not respond this week to requests for comment.

In terms of securing sensitive information, the only publicly known breach in the laser enrichment effort has been attributed to GE-Hitachi.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year levied more than $45,000 in fines against the company for what it called “significant” violations of publicly unspecified “security-related” regulations (see GSN, Oct. 20, 2011). 

Though scolded by the nuclear agency for “willful actions” and “deliberate misconduct,” no “actual consequences” from the breach occurred, according to the regulatory body’s violation letter.

The Kerr report says three teams of experts with classified clearances had analyzed the project’s security arrangements and “made recommendations to further enhance [its] security program,” with many suggestions having since been implemented.

“A final important security layer is provided by U.S. government export controls, which basically prohibit international transfer of U.S. enrichment equipment or technologies,” the assessment finds.

Over time, though, the technical know-how and key technologies used in an active industrial effort might gradually leak, according to Acton.

“The challenges to any company of keeping information secret over many decades, possibly against state-sponsored espionage efforts, are considerable,” he said.

Even if GE-Hitachi security measures are foolproof, the company’s commercialization of the laser enrichment process will set off its global spread, Kemp forecasted.

Once laser enrichment is under way in the United States, “secrecy is likely to be inadequate,” he told GSN.  “States will be more confident investing in their own research programs, and when they do, they will figure out their own solutions.”

Acton said that while public debate is desirable, it would be legitimate for the government and industry to withhold actual trade secrets or security-sensitive information connected to laser enrichment.  At the same time, he said, it was “impossible to reach an informed opinion about the proliferation risks” of the technology without more details than have been released to date.

Kemp agreed.  It would be difficult to judge the proliferation potential without doing his own detailed assessment, he said, “but from what I read [from the Kerr report], my concerns are not mitigated at all.”

He suggested that the U.S. government request an independent proliferation risk assessment from a widely respected body such as the National Academy of Sciences.

White would not say whether GE-Hitachi would cooperate with such an outside evaluation, noting his company is “confident of the independence of the [proliferation] experts we commissioned to do their risk assessment.”

He added that GE-Hitachi is working “very closely” with U.S. government agencies, including law enforcement, to “protect the technology.”

 

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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