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U.S. Finding Delayed for Novel Uranium-Processing Technology License

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Laser isotope separation equipment. A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission board has delayed a recommendation on allowing construction of a facility that would use laser technology to enrich uranium (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory photo). Laser isotope separation equipment. A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission board has delayed a recommendation on allowing construction of a facility that would use laser technology to enrich uranium (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory photo).

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing body has delayed recommending whether a first-of-its-kind laser facility for processing uranium could be built for commercial use in Wilmington, N.C.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board had been expected by the end of last month to endorse a bid by nuclear energy powerhouse GE-Hitachi to build the nation’s premier facility for laser enrichment of uranium, but instead announced on Aug. 27 that its decision would be delayed. The board ruling is a final step before the top nuclear commission weighs issuing a license, which is slated to occur by Sept. 30.

“Due to the challenges of safeguarding the classified and other types of nonpublic information introduced into the proceeding, the board currently expects to issue its initial decision in September 2012,” the three-judge panel said last week. An NRC permit can be granted anytime after the licensing board announces its initial decision, though the board ruling becomes final only following a 40-day waiting period.

David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, on Tuesday declined to elaborate on the information-security challenges raised by the brief board statement. It was unclear whether the obstacles related in any way to what the nuclear agency last year termed “significant” Global Laser Enrichment program breaches of “security-related” federal regulations, resulting in more than $45,000 in fines against the company.

Some say the postponement appears to be based more on approval-process hurdles than on any substantive problems. A GE-Hitachi spokesman, Christopher White, characterized the delay as necessary “to ensure the appropriate classification of information by the ASLB in their recommendation.”

Neither the government agency nor GE-Hitachi has divulged many details about how the energy giant intends to commercialize laser enrichment for efficiently producing fuel usable in nuclear power plants worldwide. Thus far the technology has been proven only in laboratory or test settings.

The company has said, though, that a smaller industrial facility “footprint” and reduced power consumption and emissions make laser enrichment a potentially viable method for reducing the cost of enriching uranium for commercial reactor use.

Some nonproliferation advocates have raised concerns that a first U.S. license for laser enrichment could unwittingly encourage global spread of a technology that might be easier to hide in a small clandestine effort for producing nuclear weapon-usable materials, compared to today’s centrifuge and gaseous diffusion enrichment approaches.

Dozens of issue experts, joined by some key House lawmakers, have asked that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission mandate proliferation assessments for any U.S. license applications for new nuclear technologies such as laser enrichment.

Yet it has appeared that an NRC decision on the GE-Hitachi laser license application -- slated for this month -- would come prior to the commission’s decision on a formal petition to change its rules to include a proliferation appraisal requirement, which would be taken no earlier than October.

McIntyre would not say whether the postponed board ruling would in turn delay beyond Sept. 30 the NRC determination about whether agency staff can grant the laser facility license.

“Staff cannot act without an ASLB ruling,” he said, declining to elaborate on timing specific to laser enrichment licensing.

Some issue advocates, though, see a slight license-review delay as a possible windfall.

“The licensing board’s postponement gives the full commission the time it needs to consider the request for a proliferation assessment,” said Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. The American Physical Society originally filed the petition in December 2010.

The potential need for the regulatory commission to weigh proliferation risks as a regular feature of the new-technology permit process is under active consideration, its chairwoman recently told a member of Congress who supports the idea.

“I want to assure you that the NRC takes your concerns very seriously and is fully evaluating the petition,” Allison Macfarlane said in an Aug. 15 letter to Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.).

Late last month, 19 nonproliferation experts implored Macfarlane and the four other NRC commissioners to delay their decision on laser enrichment licensing until they could fully assess the prospects for proliferation of the technologies or methods involved.

“Before a final determination is made on issuance of that license, we strongly urge the commission to require preparation of a nuclear proliferation assessment on this new technology as it holds potential proliferation risks,” Clements and the other advocates stated in an Aug. 28 letter. “Your decision on this matter is not simply a licensing decision but is of great importance to overall U.S. nonproliferation policy.”

White, the spokesman for GE-Hitachi, termed the licensing board postponement “not a significant issue” for the company’s timetable.

As laser enrichment development and testing proceeds at existing Wilmington facilities, “we continue to advance the technology,” he said, noting GE-Hitachi has not yet determined whether or when it would build a commercial facility, even if the permit is approved.

“In addition to receiving the license” from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the company’s Global Laser Enrichment program “will make a decision on whether to commercialize the technology as this process moves forward," White said on Tuesday. "This delay does not materially impact a commercialization decision.”

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