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Experts Warn of Proliferation Dangers Posed by Laser Enrichment

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(Oct. 28) -Laser isotope separation equipment. Experts warned Monday that use of laser technology to enrich uranium could lead more nations to acquire the ability to produce nuclear-weapon material (U.S. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory photo). (Oct. 28) -Laser isotope separation equipment. Experts warned Monday that use of laser technology to enrich uranium could lead more nations to acquire the ability to produce nuclear-weapon material (U.S. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory photo).

WASHINGTON -- Technology like the kind called for at a proposed laser uranium enrichment facility in the United States could increase the threat of nuclear weapons and materials proliferation in other countries, a panel of experts warned this week (see GSN, Oct. 27).

"We need a more thorough investigation of this issue now before we proceed further and perhaps spark some kind of corporate proliferation, or so-called arms race, in this area," Charles Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Monday during a panel discussion at George Washington University.

"It's not just another way to boil water," he said of the enrichment process.

Laser technology has emerged as a possible alternative to centrifuge or gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel because of its comparatively low infrastructure cost and reduced power consumption needs. Those same attributes also make it a cause for concern about proliferation around the world.

Iran in 2003 admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had operated a laser uranium research program from 1991 to 2000 (see GSN, Nov. 11, 2003). A similar experiment was uncovered in South Korea in 2004, according to Ferguson. He said roughly 20 countries -- including Brazil, France and the United States -- have pursued the technology.

A consortium formed by General Electric, Hitachi Ltd. and Cameco Corp. aims to use an Australian laser enrichment technology known as separation of isotopes by laser excitation to enrich natural uranium hexafluoride gas in the uranium 235 isotope, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In that form the element can sustain a fission chain reaction.

The company plans to conduct the project in two phases, a test program followed by operation of a commercial-scale enrichment plant, the commission said. The "test loop" began operating this summer at General Electric's nuclear fuel fabrication facility in Wilmington, N.C., and will verify "performance and reliability data" for a commercial plant.

Uranium must be enriched from 3 to 5 percent to be considered commercially viable. Ferguson predicted that the consortium would not want to exceed 5 percent. He estimated the price tag for the facility could be as high as $1 billion.

General Electric applied in June for a license to operate the commercial facility, a commission spokesman said yesterday. A license review can take roughly 30 months to complete, he said. Operations would not begin before 2013, but the commission does not have a more specific schedule for the project.

The consortium is saying little publicly about the project, according to Ferguson, who was a signatory to an Oct. 6 letter urging the House Energy and Commerce Committee to schedule a hearing to examine the proliferation risks of using laser enrichment technology.

That letter -- signed by 24 nuclear analysts from organizations including the Federation of American Scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility -- also called on the panel to look at the need for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to include proliferation considerations in all licensing proceedings.

Former NRC Chairman John Ahearne noted the documents the consortium submitted to the five-member panel claimed 250 individual security clearances would be required for operating staff and an additional 250 for maintenance and support.

He predicted the secrecy would complicate the licensing process as it would restrict the public's access to information about the project.

Ferguson said concerns about a potential arms race involving the laser technology are growing among other companies. He declined to name specific corporations.

He likened the pursuit of laser uranium enrichment to the Manhattan Project, the 1940s effort to develop the first atomic bomb. After the team of scientists involved in the project made the weapon "the main secret was out."

"Once smart people know something can be done then, if they devote enough resources and enough technical talent, they can figure it out and [it can] be replicated," Ferguson said.

"There is historical evidence that suggests that if one country does something other countries are likely to try and follow," added James Acton, an associate in the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment. He later labeled the phenomenon as "follow the leader consequences."

Acton -- who said that "in principle" he does not oppose the proposed facility -- called for a "full proliferation analysis" to take place in a public forum. The existing license review process does not take proliferation concerns into account, he said.

He also argued that if the United States pursues laser enrichment commercialization it would be harder for the country to prevent other states, especially those now without nuclear power, from going down the same route.

Global Enrichment Laser, the consortium behind the proposed facility, said in a statement today that the international community has developed "robust measures to safeguard enrichment technologies" and that it has worked "very closely" with numerous government agencies to comply fully with those measures.

The laser-enrichment technology is classified by the U.S. government and numerous measures are in place to control "sensitive information and ensure its safekeeping," the firm said. Many of those safeguards themselves are classified to "protect the integrity of the control systems."

Industry arguments that laser technology has potential economic advantages and that proliferation can be managed through effective technology control are "overstated," according to Acton.

The laser technology also could challenge the International Atomic Energy Agency's program to prevent nuclear proliferation since the system could be reconstituted quickly to produce weapon-usable uranium, he said. That would shorten the international community's advance warning for such activity.

"From what I know at the moment, it doesn't seem to me that safeguards, however effective, mitigate the consequences of the spread of laser enrichment significantly," Acton told the audience.

Ahearne said he would "hate" to see concerns about laser enrichment lead to a decrease in attention to centrifuges, which are an "immediate and present danger."

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