This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
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."
Clements on July 6 told the three-member board that the hearing “has significant implications for U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy.” He requested in writing that it “reconsider the decision to close the entire proceeding.”
In an April 4 scheduling order, the ASLB members designated for this license application -- Chairman Paul Ryerson and members James Jackson and Michael Garcia -- explained that they intended to keep the session closed “because of the likelihood that nonpublic information will be addressed.”
Detailed discussion of the company’s “Global Laser Enrichment” process could involve information proprietary to GE-Hitachi -- disclosure of which might endanger a competitive edge that its unique technologies offer -- and specifics that involve national security sensitivities, NRC and industry officials have said.
“While we would like to be as transparent as possible … the only practical thing to do with this mandatory hearing is to close the hearing to the public in its entirety,” Ryerson said during a June 28 conference call, according to an NRC transcript provided to Global Security Newswire. The session is considered mandatory because it pertains to a major licensing action.
Classified and proprietary information about technology safety, laser enrichment processes, and export controls are likely to be laced throughout the hearing, the chairman said. “It really would not be practical to try to make very limited parts of this hearing available to the public,” Ryerson said. “We'd be constantly sending people out of the room.”
The administrative judges did not appear to consider the option of initially holding an open session that would then be followed by a single, closed session, as is frequently done by U.S. congressional committees that handle classified material.
The board chairman noted that a redacted transcript of the hearing would be made available at a future date and that the board’s ultimate ruling on the application would also be released -- “at the very least, an edited version of our final decision, possibly, the entire final decision,” he said.
During the conference call, which was open to the public in listen-only mode, Ryerson asked the participants whether they would object to a closed evidentiary hearing.
“Your Honor, we do not object,” said Donald Silverman, an attorney representing GE-Hitachi. “We agree completely.”
“Your Honor, that's fine with us,” said Marcia Simon, an NRC lawyer.
Clements, who serves as his organization’s nonproliferation policy director, differed with that view. He called it “very disconcerting” that the hearing would be closed for what appeared to be reasons of convenience or continuity.
Several NRC staff briefings under review during the hearing have already been made public, “indicating that much will be discussed which is not of a sensitive nature,” he said in his written appeal.
Keeping a portion of the hearing open for public deliberation on nonsensitive information facing the board might help the U.S. public hold the licensing body accountable for national-security concerns as it makes its upcoming decision, Clements said.
“The hearing may in the eyes of the licensing board be about a single license, but in fact their decision could have a lasting impact on U.S. nonproliferation policy,” he told GSN last week in e-mailed comments. “The hearing board should thus strive to open the hearing as much as possible.”
Two former NRC commissioners, asked for comment this week, agreed.
“If the licensing board cared about informing the public, it would have structured the hearing to minimize the classified portion,” said Victor Gilinsky, an independent consultant who served two terms on the commission through 1984. “Beyond that, closing the hearing entirely out of fear that it could aid would-be proliferators underlines how wrong the NRC was to reject the proliferation issue in the licensing proceeding.”
“Closing entire licensing hearings limits public discussion of the dangers. It doesn't limit the dangers that flow from widespread deployment [of] and worker access to sensitive designs and equipment,” said Peter Bradford, who also sat on the commission in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “It was, after all, one man's access to sensitive enrichment technology in Europe that started proliferation chains leading to [nuclear-weapon efforts in] Pakistan, Libya, Iran and North Korea.”
Bradford, now a Vermont Law School adjunct professor, was referring to Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who led a black-market ring for centrifuge components and other sensitive nuclear technologies believed to have begun in the 1980s (see GSN, Jan. 25).
Speaking on Tuesday, Heinonen emphasized that with many technical experts around the globe already adept at the laser enrichment process in research settings, it would do little good for the U.S. government to stop GE-Hitachi from commercializing the method for civil reactors.
“I don’t think that we solve it by giving or not giving a license for this General Electric [technology],” said Heinonen, who left the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2010 to become a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “The problem is that the technology exists there for the small facilities. And how to detect them? You don’t find it with one single device.”
Francis Slakey, who submitted the American Physical Society’s rule-making petition in 2010, defended his group’s focus on U.S. licensing for the technology.
Speaking at the same Tuesday forum, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he said a requirement for NRC-vetted proliferation assessments should be just one of many tools to help stem the spread of the emerging enrichment method.
GE-Hitachi voluntarily commissioned its own proliferation analysis by three outside experts, but NRC and company officials have declined to release even a redacted version of the report, saying it contained proprietary information. However, GSN reviewed the seven-page document, which found minimal proliferation risks for the emerging laser enrichment technology (see GSN, May 24).
Also appearing at the Tuesday speaker event, GE-Hitachi government relations official Ruth Smith emphasized her company’s “commitment to protect the technology” despite having paid more than $45,000 in NRC fines last year for what the agency termed “significant” and “willful” security violations (see GSN, Oct. 20, 2011).
Slakey, a physics lecturer at Georgetown University, called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide on the APS request for “Nuclear Proliferation Assessments” prior to its anticipated September licensing of the GE-Hitachi technology. His group specifically cited the pending laser enrichment license application as a key example of why proliferation appraisals should be required before a new technology proceeds.
However, McIntyre, the NRC spokesman, dismissed Slakey’s remarks regarding timing, saying, “The petition review and the licensing review are separate.”