This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
The potential for an emerging laser-based uranium enrichment technology to be used in producing nuclear-weapon fuel at small, easily hidden locations has raised concerns that extremists or renegade countries might illicitly acquire and exploit the process, The New York Times reported on Saturday.
General Electric has harnessed the laser-based process over two years on an experimental basis, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to determine before 2013 whether to permit construction of a $1 billion commercial plant near Wilmington, N.C., to generate nuclear power reactor fuel on an industrial scale.
Atomic specialists fear General Electric's advancements could prompt Iran, which has carried out laser enrichment in small-scale tests, to establish a clandestine plant that employs the technology.
“We’re on the verge of a new route to the bomb,” Princeton University nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel said. “We should have learned enough by now to do an assessment before we let this kind of thing out.”
As producing weapon-capable fissile material is viewed as the most significant obstacle to constructing a bomb, emerging atomic fuel production techniques are looked upon as potential threats. Laser enrichment's advocates, though, describe the technology as a boon in light of increasing international concerns over the pollutants generated by some nonnuclear energy production methods.
“We are currently optimizing the design,” Global Laser Enrichment President Christopher Monetta said.
The consortium, led by GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, anticipates “substantial demand for nuclear fuel,” Monetta said. Still, nervous international responses to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan “do create some uncertainty,” he admitted.
Nonproliferation advocates in late 2009 expressed concern to U.S. lawmakers and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over laser enrichment's potential to be tapped for military use. The atomic regulatory body early last year expressed opposition to calls for a government inquiry into threats posed by the technology.
The American Physical Society petitioned the panel to require threat evaluations before a project can be approved.
“The issue is too big” to remain static, said Georgetown University physicist Francis Slakey, who prepared the petition.
The process has evolved from “an oversold, overpromised set of technologies” to something that “appears to be close to a real industrial process,” said Donald Kerr, a former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who headed a General Electric probe of the technology's risks with a former high-level intelligence insider. The enrichment process is unlikely to be illicitly obtained, and an attempt at covert implementation would likely be spotted, Kerr and two other former government insiders found.
The planned Wilmington site would be "a major industrial facility,” Kerr added. “Our observation was this was not something that would sit in a garage or be easily hidden.”
Monetta said Kerr's remarks demonstrated that the Wilmington site would "not result in the proliferation of enrichment technology.” The facility's "significant size" and sophistication would complicate efforts to replicate it on a clandestine basis, he said.
Skeptics, though, said a much smaller site could produce nuclear bomb fuel with the technology. The Wilmington site could generate material for 1,000 nuclear bombs, they said.