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New Enrichment Technology Offers Detectable "Signatures," Advocate Says
WASHINGTON -- A new laser-based technology for enriching uranium offers a number of features that could facilitate detection by international nuclear watchdogs, should the process be utilized for illicit atomic programs, according to a key U.S. industry advocate (see GSN, July 30).
Laser enrichment produces multiple "signatures that make development and deployment of the technology detectable," said Tammy Orr, chief executive officer of Global Laser Enrichment. The consortium, led by GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, appears on track to receive the first U.S. commercial license for the technology.
Following approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- potentially as early as January 2012 -- GE-Hitachi would build the laser enrichment facility near Wilmington, N.C. GE-Hitachi in 2006 acquired sole rights to the process called "separation of isotopes by laser excitation," or SILEX, from Australia. If successful, the process could significantly reduce the price of reactor fuel, which the venture hopes to sell to nuclear power plants around the world.
Though the U.S. nuclear agency intends to ensure GE-Hitachi can adequately protect information and technology at its new facility, nonproliferation experts say NRC licensing will almost certainly prompt heightened global investment in similar techniques and competition in the laser enrichment business.
The technology promises to take up less facility space, use less electricity and produce fewer emissions than today's centrifuge enrichment process. That has prompted new worries among nonproliferation experts that, using laser enrichment, a nation like Iran could even more easily hide clandestine production of nuclear weapon-grade material.
"Should the United States be seen to embrace the use of laser isotope enrichment as a commercially viable technology, there can be little question that other states will be strongly encouraged to follow this lead and develop such technology for their own use," according to a letter to the nuclear commission signed last fall by eight scientist and issue experts.
"Given the great difficulty of detecting laser isotope enrichment facilities, their spread could undermine U.S. nonproliferation efforts and the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm the absence of undeclared nuclear activities in Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) non-nuclear-weapon states," the letter reads.
Detecting Laser Enrichment
International detection of any secret laser enrichment facilities should not be as challenging as many outside specialists imagine, Orr told Global Security Newswire last week in a written response to questions.
"While the [facility] footprint is smaller, potentially 25 percent the size of a comparable centrifuge plant, it is not small," she said.
Electricity use also might signal the presence of a hidden laser enrichment site, even if usage is lower than typically seen with large centrifuge facilities, Orr said. Achieving "energy efficiency" is an objective of laser enrichment, but "it is not at a level that would reduce electricity utilization to a nondetectable point," she said.
Orr left unclear whether these features would be distinctive enough to allow international monitors to detect undeclared laser enrichment plants from afar, or if instead use of the laser technique could be identified only in on-site inspections.
"In addition to the standard considerations such as footprint and energy-consumption," Orr said, "the process has other signatures that make development and deployment of the technology detectable."
The GE-Hitachi official declined to say whether laser enrichment would produce a unique radionuclide signature that inspectors could detect during visits to facilities.
"This information is classified, but there are a number of 'signatures' which enable detection of attempts to develop and deploy this technology," she said, without elaborating.
"I don't know what [signatures] GE is talking about there, but clearly once you start doing enrichment, then you have a detectable signature because it's not natural uranium," one diplomat in Vienna said in a telephone interview last week. Swipe samples inside a facility could indicate whether air ducts contain traces of enriched uranium, the official said.
Yet, before access inside a facility is obtained, a host nation typically must declare a site as eligible for safeguards. Absent a declaration, international nuclear watchdogs would need some indication that illicit enrichment activity is being conducted. Even then, on-site inspection normally requires a host nation's voluntary cooperation.
The presence of a centrifuge enrichment facility today usually cannot be confirmed through physical or environmental indicators from outside the gates, the Vienna official said. With laser enrichment, "the signature in the [surrounding] environment would be probably next to nothing, like centrifuge," the diplomat said.
The National Nuclear Security Administration -- a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department -- is studying how to detect the existence of any secret laser enrichment sites, according to one U.S. government official familiar with the matter.
"I think it's probably a little premature to say definitely yes or no" regarding the availability of physical or environmental markers unique to laser enrichment that could be detected externally, according to the official, who declined to be named.
"This is the sort of thing IAEA and NNSA are puzzling over," said Francis Slakey, a physicist at Georgetown University and public affairs director at the American Physical Society. "We want to know now whether or not there's any unique signature, regardless of what happens with the Wilmington plant."
As the situation stands -- and given the ease with which today's centrifuge enrichment processes can be hidden -- the International Atomic Energy Agency "has to rely on other kinds of indicators," such as published research papers and the import of dual-use equipment or items employed solely for enrichment, the diplomat said.
The Vienna official said these types of indications might help inspectors monitor the possible development of covert laser enrichment sites in the years ahead.
In addition, the U.N. agency typically depends on "third-party information from another state saying, 'Hey, we've got indications that this state might be doing something or these entities might be doing something,'" the official said.
In theory, laser enrichment facilities could also have unique design features or produce distinctive emissions, but these are among many unknowns about the technology.
"Suppose there's one item in the process that's not dual-use," Slakey said in a brief interview today. "Is there some part of it that is so unique that if it were ordered, it would signal that someone is up to laser enrichment?"
Meanwhile, scientists are "developing techniques to look at inadvertent releases or plumes out of the stacks," the Vienna official said. "But I don't know what is [in] the effluence from a SILEX facility."
However, not everyone is optimistic about the prospects.
"The idea that international inspectors who missed Iran's enrichment efforts at Natanz and an entire reactor in Syria -- and, for years, North Korea's [plutonium] reprocessing activities -- are somehow now going to have timely warning of a facility that will have a footprint of a tiny fraction of a centrifuge plant just isn't credible," Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said in an interview last week (see GSN, July 23 and July 16).
A Safeguards Debate
If the Obama administration opts to put the Wilmington facility on a list of nuclear energy sites eligible for IAEA safeguards, the U.N. agency could gain access to technology details that might help it detect similar-but-clandestine sites elsewhere around the world in the years to come.
The international atomic energy organization uses monitoring and inspections to ensure that non-nuclear member states to the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty do not divert weapon-usable material from any of their civil power facilities to potential covert military programs.
As one of five nuclear-weapon countries recognized by the treaty, the United States is not subject to the same safeguards process, but can voluntarily share information about its atomic facilities with the U.N. agency.
A debate is flaring among various U.S. agencies -- including the State and Energy departments and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- over whether to list the first-of-its-kind GE-Hitachi laser enrichment facility.
Some U.S. officials are concerned the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot be trusted to adequately protect proprietary or sensitive data, according to Washington insiders. The U.N. agency's personnel include officials from states suspected of working to secretly develop a nuclear weapon capacity, such as Iran and Syria, though these nations deny any intention to do so.
A July 21 interagency meeting to consider listing the Wilmington site for IAEA safeguards left the matter unresolved, U.S. government officials told GSN.
"The U.S. is not planning to put it on the list, because it's afraid the technology is so sensitive that it would raise proliferation concerns just to share information with the IAEA," said Ed Lyman, senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
He supports listing the GE-Hitachi facility on the basis that increased IAEA understanding of the technology would help prevent its proliferation, and a U.S. declaration would set a good precedent for other nations to follow.
"If you don't trust the IAEA with design information, then it kind of makes the whole idea of IAEA safeguards meaningless," Lyman said.
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