A nonproliferation activist has requested that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission open a final board hearing to the public before approving a license for the nation’s first commercial laser-enrichment facility (see Global Security Newswire, July 6).
A three-member Atomic Safety and Licensing Board -- a chairman and two administrative judges -- on Wednesday morning was expected to begin weighing nuclear energy industry giant GE-Hitachi’s bid to open a facility in Wilmington, N.C., that would produce nuclear fuel for commercial reactors around the globe.
The so-called “evidentiary hearing” process could continue behind closed doors through Friday, according to the board. Its decision is expected later this summer.
A number of lawmakers and nuclear-proliferation experts have voiced concern that a commercially successful laser-enrichment effort in the United States could reinvigorate worldwide research on the technology, which began decades ago in fits and starts.
Enriching uranium using a laser process could be done in a significantly smaller space than required for today’s other enrichment methods -- centrifuge or gaseous diffusion -- potentially making a covert effort to process uranium for a nuclear weapon easier to hide, experts say.
“I do regard this matter to be a test of U.S. nonproliferation policy and believe that the public has the right to witness how the ASLB judges embrace or avoid the issue,” said Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, noting that to date the nuclear agency has played down potential global-proliferation ramifications of U.S. licensing for laser enrichment. “I suspect they will avoid it, leaving the matter to [continue] swinging in the wind.”
More than 20 nations, including suspected nuclear-weapon aspirant Iran, have already “extensively studied” the laser-enrichment process, former U.N. nuclear watchdog official Olli Heinonen said on Tuesday at a Washington event. The broad parameters for how to carry out the process are available in open literature, he said.
GE-Hitachi has touted its laser-enrichment method -- known as “separation of isotopes by laser excitation” or “SILEX” -- as offering an attractive alternative for processing uranium for use in nuclear- power plants. It can be complicated and costly to develop, but promises a smaller industrial footprint -- more limited workspace, less electricity usage and fewer emissions -- compared with today’s commercial enrichment processes (see GSN, Aug. 2, 2010).
Proliferation worries revolve around the notion that a similar laser process could be used in hidden facilities to produce fissile material for an atomic weapon. While GE-Hitachi plans to build a commercial-size production facility, the company’s proof of concept could encourage proliferators abroad to adopt small-scale laser enrichment for illicit use, according to experts.
The American Physical Society has petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require enrichment and reprocessing facility license applicants to assess the proliferation potential of laser and other emerging technologies. To date NRC staff has resisted the idea, but the commission in October is expected to formally respond to the petition, which the 113-year-old physicists’ organization submitted nearly two years earlier (see GSN, Jan. 12, 2011).
Still, no one has contested the license application for the GE-Hitachi laser enrichment technology. That means that only the licensing board, NRC staff, GE-Hitachi representatives, and any called witnesses are to attend this week’s evidentiary hearing.
Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearings of this kind are typically a final opportunity for the panel to review NRC staff work on a license application and request any further activities before handing down a decision. The licensing board is slated to announce its ruling on the GE-Hitachi application by Aug. 31, and NRC staff is expected to issue the license by Sept. 30.
In response to Clements’ request, the ASLB panel at the outset of its Wednesday proceedings was to decide whether some or all of the hearing might be opened to public view, according to NRC spokesman David McIntyre.
The nuclear agency had initially announced that the event would be “closed to the public” and “only previously cleared personnel may attend."