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Experts Call for Additional Scrutiny of Proposed Enrichment System

Two academics are urging the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider the proliferation potential of a new uranium enrichment system in deciding whether to approve a plant that would employ the technology, National Public Radio reported today (see GSN, Oct. 28, 2009).

General Electric and other companies have established a consortium that intends to operate a commercial plant that would use an Australian laser enrichment technology to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. Some observers fear, though, that the same technology could be used to secretly produce material for nuclear weapons.

Plants equipped with the lasers would be unlike standard uranium enrichment sites, which generally require significant construction projects and power needs that make them visible to satellites or infrared sensors, according to Francis Slakey, a physicist at Georgetown University in Washington. The facility's space and electricity needs would be significantly reduced, making it more easily hidden, he said.

"That's the worry -- things are starting to get so small and so efficient that it's below the detection limit," Slakey said. "Which creates an enormous proliferation challenge."

Slakey and University of California economics and law professor Linda Cohen last month published a commentary in the journal Nature stating that the commission "should assess proliferation risks in the licensing process" for laser enrichment technology.

"Both my co-author and I are advocates of nuclear power," Slakey says. "We're strongly in favor of nuclear power, but we think it's in the best interest in expansion of nuclear power to manage very carefully the proliferation risks."

General Electric-Hitachi said in e-mailed statements that proliferation concerns should not be part of the commission's licensing mandate and that other federal departments with oversight for that sector have signed off on the project.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko said national security is part of his organization's mandate, NPR reported.

"It's a very new technology, or a novel technology," he said. "It's not similar to the kinds of enrichment facilities we've licensed in the past. 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 commission will need to be satisfied with security measures at the plant, Jaczko said. He suggested, though, that it would remain reluctant to state whether the technology in total is simply too dangerous to be allowed in the United States.

"We don't necessarily want to be changing the rules in the middle of the game," he said, "but we also want to make sure we've looked at all the issues and properly addressed it."

That is not likely to be a sufficient level of attention, according to Slakey.

"There's been a number of different technologies to enrich uranium," he said. "Every single one of them -- despite best efforts to keep secrets -- every single one of them has proliferated" (Richard Harris, National Public Radio, April 12).

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