A controversial proposal to establish a commercial laser-enrichment facility in North Carolina will be heard at a final hearing next week by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, Nature magazine reported (see GSN, May 24).
Atomic energy giant GE-Hitachi is promoting its laser-enrichment technology as a less costly and less energy-intensive process for enriching uranium to fuel atomic energy reactors.
The NRC board is expected in September to decide whether to issue a permit for the country's first laser-enrichment plant in Wilmington, N.C. Projections are that approval will be granted, according to the scientific magazine.
Wednesday's hearing on the project will be closed to the public. "Although we would like to keep it as transparent as possible, the only practical thing to do with this mandatory review is to close this hearing in its entirety to the public," NRC administrative judge Paul Ryerson said.
A number of nonproliferation analysts and specialists are worried that the successful commercialization of laser enrichment by a U.S. company would spur similar efforts abroad, potentially heightening the risk of nuclear proliferation. Laser enrichment could lead to countries illicitly engaging in nuclear-weapon development efforts, as it would allow the creation of facilities with smaller industrial footprints that would be easier to hide from foreign monitoring.
Princeton University atomic expert Scott Kemp noted that a number of nations already have a workforce specialized in laser technologies. "That expertise does not exist for centrifuges, which are a bit esoteric," he said.
Former NRC commissioner Dale Klein said the GE-Hitachi proposal has already been adequately vetted for nuclear proliferation concerns by the Defense Department.
Ex-commissioner Victor Gilinsky, however, said other government entities with proliferation expertise did not play a large enough role in examining the nuclear weapons potential of the technology.
When the U.S. government's desire to encourage the sale abroad of domestic atomic energy technology comes into conflict with nuclear proliferation risks, "generally speaking, the policy to spread nuclear technology overrides the nonproliferation policy," Gilinsky said.
GE spokesman Michael Tetuan said the envisioned security measures for the Wilmington plant go above and beyond those mandated by the government.
Nonproliferation Education Policy Center Executive Director Henry Sokolski contended that the potential for proliferation would exist as soon as commercial laser enrichment were proven to be a viable large-scale production approach. At that point, foreign countries could be encouraged to begin studying laser-enrichment on their own. "The most sensitive technology leak has already occurred and it's that this stuff can work," he said (Sharon Weinberger, Nature, July 4).
A controversial proposal to establish a commercial laser-enrichment facility in North Carolina will be heard at a final hearing next week by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.