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U.S. Nuclear Body Weighs Proliferation Appraisals for Facility Licensing
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has agreed to consider requiring companies that seek a domestic license for a civil nuclear facility to evaluate any potential proliferation risks (see GSN, Aug. 2, 2010).
The agency late last month announced it would study an American Physical Society petition that would make a "Nuclear Proliferation Assessment" a standard feature of the permit process. However, the commission is not expected to decide on the matter anytime soon.
"If our rule were adopted by the NRC, then the next step would be that [proliferation risk] information would be provided to NRC, and NRC would evaluate it as part of the license process," Francis Slakey, a Georgetown University physicist who directs APS public affairs, said yesterday in an interview. Without such a rule, "NRC is not obligated to do anything," he said.
Founded in 1899, the American Physical Society has voiced support for nuclear power but emphasizes that atomic materials must be "deployed in a safe, secure and responsible manner." The group says it represents more than 48,000 scientists across the nation.
Under the current licensing system, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require a dedicated review of proliferation concerns. Rather, agency officials have said the "net effect" of its overall process discourages the spread of sensitive technologies, according to the physicists' organization.
The existing NRC process includes an evaluation of an industry applicant's ability to safeguard materials and information inside its facility. Still, some issue experts insist that is not enough to stem global proliferation.
The NRC decision to weigh the matter comes in the wake of mounting concern among some physicists and nuclear-weapon specialists about a first-of-its-kind North Carolina facility that would use lasers to enrich uranium for commercial nuclear reactors worldwide (see GSN, July 30, 2010).
Proposed by GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, the new process might produce nuclear fuel more cheaply and require a smaller facility space for enrichment than ever before.
Those same potential benefits, though, could eventually make laser enrichment the technology of choice for a nation such as Iran or Syria that seeks the means to clandestinely produce a key material for nuclear warheads, according to a number of experts. It is possible that a laser enrichment site could be built that has such a small "footprint" that it is virtually undetectable from the outside, observers say.
GE-Hitachi dismisses this concern. Michael Tetuan, a spokesman for GE Power and Water, said yesterday that late last summer the consortium voluntarily convened "an outside panel of experts" to deliberate on the issue. The group "concluded that the development and deployment of the [GE-Hitachi] laser technology would not present a significant proliferation risk," the spokesman told GSN.
Tetuan would not identify participants in the outside panel or release additional details about its analysis, saying it contained proprietary data.
Slakey applauded GE-Hitachi for voluntarily commissioning the analysis. He said the consortium action demonstrated that industry can perform such evaluations without compromising secret data or slowing down the licensing process. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval of the Wilmington, N.C., laser-enrichment facility could come by January 2012.
Slakey last year joined 10 other APS panelists in calling on the United States to "elevate the priority of nonproliferation [considerations] in the NRC licensing process," as part of a broad effort to reduce nuclear weapons around the world.
The group noted that the regulatory agency would be reviewing license applications in the coming years for "new technologies that could carry substantial proliferation risks."
Citing laser enrichment as an example of an emerging technology of concern, the APS rule-change petition said the NRC process should properly vet license applications for new nuclear technologies that could inadvertently facilitate covert military diversion of nuclear materials, if duplicated worldwide.
"The study group found that some of the new enrichment and reprocessing technologies could represent proliferation 'game changers' since they would lead to smaller, more efficient, and possibly less expensive methods for the production and use of nuclear materials that would be more difficult to detect," the petition reads.
An NRC requirement to assess these risks would "support the goal of ensuring peaceful uses of fissile material," the APS study panel said last February in a 28-page report, titled "Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Arsenal Downsizing."
So far, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has set aside calls for substantial review of proliferation risks associated with laser-enrichment technology.
Commission spokesman David McIntyre told Global Security Newswire last July that the "NRC believes that nonproliferation goals are achieved through its normal licensing and regulation" and that "a separate nonproliferation assessment is neither warranted nor necessary, as it would provide no additional benefit."
That view would not affect the commission's plans to consider adding a dedicated Nuclear Proliferation Assessment to future licensing application requirements, another NRC spokesman insisted yesterday.
"The staff will examine the petition separately, along with its supporting documentation and any public comments, to determine the appropriate course of action going forward," Scott Burnell told GSN in a written response to questions.
"They did go ahead and docket it," Slakey said when asked if NRC officials could be expected to give his organization's proposal a fair hearing. "They could have rejected it."
In its petition, the American Physical Society stated that requiring a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment "is consistent with the NRC requirement to evaluate whether the issuance of a license 'would be inimical to the common defense and security or to the health and safety of the public,'" as called for by the Atomic Energy Act.
Under today's licensing procedures, "nonproliferation is not given an adequate level of attention" and "may overlook some [properties] of the technology which merit attention in a proliferation context," according to the APS petition.
The NRC spokesman would not say how long the rulemaking process might take, but other agency officials said consideration of such regulation changes typically lasts a year or more.
In a December 23 Federal Register notice, the regulatory commission invited public comment on the APS request.
After the comment period concludes on March 8, the NRC Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs office will analyze the petition and public comments. Later the office will submit to the five federally appointed nuclear commissioners a recommendation on how to proceed, agency officials said.
The commission would subsequently release a decision, to be followed by another public comment period, and ultimately NRC commissioners would take action on the proposal or dismiss it.
Under the change in wording that Slakey's organization has proposed for the regulations that govern licensing, an applicant for a nuclear power industry license would undertake the proliferation analysis, which would then be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for review.
Questions to be addressed by the applicant's analysis should include these, at a minimum, according to the petition:
-- "Could the design of the technology be altered easily to allow for diversion of nuclear material?";
-- "Could the facility be constructed and operated in a manner that is undetectable?"; and
-- "Are there unique components of the technology whose acquisition would indicate the construction of such a facility and could be easily tracked?"
Requiring an applicant company to consider proliferation concerns related to its technology is "the cleanest way to initiate the assessment," Slakey said. He explained that once a nonproliferation assessment becomes part of a license application package, NRC staff and commissioners would be obliged to take proliferation factors into consideration before approving or denying a permit.
While a company seeking a license could hardly be expected to advise against NRC approval of its own application, the Georgetown scholar said his group hoped that even an incremental change to today's process could help stem the spread of nuclear weapons.
"It's the first step in making proliferation a step in the process," Slakey said. "Could it be better? Probably. But I think we are worse without it at all."
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