This is the first in a five-part Global Security Newswire series on emerging technologies and scientific advances that might pose new proliferation risks.
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is standing by a decision not to conduct an assessment of potential proliferation risks associated with licensing a new technology for uranium enrichment, despite the concerns of several leading physicists and issue experts (see GSN, April 12).
(Jul. 30) - The K-25 facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn., used gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium, before shutting down. A laser-based enrichment technology proposed for U.S. licensing could be housed in a much smaller structure, raising concerns that some nations might use similar processes to covertly produce weapon material (U.S. Energy Department/Christian Science Monitor).
Pending NRC approval -- expected as early as January 2012 -- a consortium led by GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy plans to construct a facility near Wilmington, N.C., that would employ a laser-based process to enrich uranium. The enriched uranium, in turn, would be used for fueling commercial nuclear power reactors worldwide. The venture in 2006 acquired sole rights to the process called "separation of isotopes by laser excitation," or SILEX, from Australia.
"The NRC has no statutory requirement to perform a 'nonproliferation assessment' as part of its licensing review for the proposed GE-Hitachi facility," said David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman. He insisted, though, that even without a nonproliferation analysis, the commission's license-review process "effectively protects against the unauthorized spread of the technology."
If commercially successful, the laser enrichment approach might significantly cut reactor fuel costs and other nations would be likely to redouble their efforts to develop similar techniques, experts say. GE-Hitachi would not address outside estimates that the SILEX technique, which it has renamed Global Laser Enrichment, could cut the cost of reactor fuel in half.
Laser enrichment might also offer a boon to nations interested in covertly developing nuclear weapons, according to physicist James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The concern is that laser enrichment facilities might take up less space, use less electricity and produce fewer emissions than centrifuge enrichment," he said last week. "If this is correct, laser enrichment could appear attractive to a state intent on secretly producing [highly enriched uranium] for military purposes."
More than a dozen nations have researched the technique for decades but it has proven exceedingly difficult to master on an industrial scale.
That might soon change, as GE-Hitachi has recently claimed initial test successes at the Wilmington site, where several of its commercial facilities are already based.
Detecting a Covert Facility
Many details about the technology remain sensitive or proprietary, making it difficult for outsiders to gauge the risk that similar processes might be used in secret. For example, it is unclear whether the laser technology offers an effective means of producing weapon-grade uranium, or if innate limitations in the process might largely constrain production to low-enriched uranium insufficient for building an atomic device.
"If it turns out that SILEX is not very good at producing [highly enriched uranium], I'd be less concerned," said Acton, an associate at Carnegie's Nuclear Policy Program. "We just don't know."
A laser enrichment process that is capable of manufacturing material usable in nuclear weapons would stoke the worries of many nonproliferation specialists.
Perhaps the toughest challenge in stemming proliferation lies in uncovering undeclared facilities that a non-nuclear weapon nation might seek to hide. Iran, for example, was recently found to have hidden initial construction of a centrifuge enrichment site at Qum (see GSN, March 29).
"Given the great difficulty in detecting laser isotope enrichment facilities, their spread could undermine U.S. nonproliferation efforts and the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm the absence of undeclared nuclear activities in Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty non-nuclear-weapon states," according to a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, signed last fall by eight scientists and issue experts.
"Detecting clandestine centrifuge facilities is already the IAEA's toughest challenge," Acton said last week, referring to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. "Initiating the use of this technology might -- and I emphasize might -- be risky, but the NRC does not appear remotely interested in assessing the risk."
No Special Assessment
The September 2009 letter from scientists and issue specialists called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make "the increased risk of nuclear proliferation" an "explicit factor in its decision" about whether to license the new facility.
More recently, on June 29, the American Physical Society petitioned the nuclear agency to adopt a broad new rule that would obligate "proliferation assessments as part of the [nuclear facility] licensing process," to include not only laser enrichment facilities but other new plants, as well.
An NRC response on the requested rule change remains pending. Ed Lyman, senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he thinks it "would require an act of Congress ... to change the rules."
The NRC chairman, Gregory Jaczko, has alluded to the international detection worries, noting in a July 12 speech that "the smaller footprint and lower energy needs of the laser enrichment technology have been the cause of concern."
He also told the Christian Science Monitor in May that evaluating a nuclear facility such as the GE-Hitachi plant for possible proliferation risk "is certainly well within our authority as a regulator."
The nuclear agency spokesman last week insisted, though, that no special assessment would be required for determining the proliferation dangers associated with laser enrichment technology, beyond a narrowly defined analysis focused on whether GE-Hitachi can adequately protect information and technology at the new facility.
Based on its initial reviews, the regulatory commission staff "preliminarily recommends that, unless safety issues mandate otherwise, the ... NRC should issue a license," according to a June 25 notice in the Federal Register.
The emerging dynamic might well place Jaczko at odds with his own NRC staff, according to some observers.
The commission chairman "may not yet have gone the distance" and still has an opportunity to weigh in on the issue, said Francis Slakey, a physicist at Georgetown University and public affairs director at the American Physical Society.
Tom Clements, southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator at Friends of the Earth, agreed. He was one of two dozen experts who wrote to Congress last October to request hearings on the issue.
"There is still time to stop this train and conduct a proper review of the proliferation threat posed by laser enrichment technology and Commissioner Jaczko needs to make sure that this review happens now," Clements told Global Security Newswire.
Under the NRC licensing schedule for the GE-Hitachi facility, the commission's Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards Office is slated to issue a "Safety Evaluation Report" by Dec. 31 that would address requirements for ensuring that secret details about the technology are not diverted outside the facility.
However, the planned scope of that analysis is overly narrow, critics say. While tight controls over GE-Hitachi's proprietary technology are clearly necessary, they are likely to be insufficient alone to guard against proliferation of the laser enrichment process, according to this view.
A U.S. Precedent?
If GE-Hitachi "successfully commercializes this technology, other nations would certainly be interested in developing their own variant, which then could be employed in a nuclear weapons program," Acton said. Other nations that have previously researched the technology -- such as Brazil, France and Russia -- can be expected to intensify their work to match any new U.S. capability, nonproliferation specialists say.
Washington's approval of a laser enrichment license also "could make it much more difficult for the United States to criticize its future use abroad," Acton said.
Absent a rule change, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission lacks a specific mandate to review nonproliferation risks -- beyond security issues at the particular facility -- as part of its licensing process, according to the agency spokesman. He also said a review of the proposed plant's security plans should be enough.
"The NRC believes that nonproliferation goals are achieved through its normal licensing and regulation," McIntyre said. "A separate nonproliferation assessment is neither warranted nor necessary, as it would provide no additional benefit."
He added that it would be more appropriate for Congress or other government agencies, such as the State Department, to weigh the risk that other nations would follow suit if the United States successfully commercializes laser enrichment. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as lead agency in the licensing process, has not requested external support of this kind.
"It is unnecessary for the NRC to retain such a capability [to conduct a nonproliferation assessment] within its staff, 'delegate' the preparation of an assessment to another federal agency, or retain a contractor to prepare such an assessment," the NRC spokesman said.
"There is something of a contradiction here," Acton said. "Without a qualified staff, how can the NRC judge that methods to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of information and the diversion of material are sufficient, in themselves, to achieve U.S. nonproliferation goals?"
More than a decade ago, the Clinton administration submitted to Congress a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement regarding the SILEX process, as the focus of its 1999 technology-transfer agreement with Australia. The State Department this week refused to release the assessment or a summary of its findings.
However, a department official cited then-President Clinton's transmittal letter to Capitol Hill, which said he had "determined that [the pact's] performance will promote, and not constitute an unreasonable risk to, the common defense and security."
The State Department also would not say whether it plans to initiate any new appraisal of laser enrichment, in light of today's proliferation concerns and the impending first license of the technology.
Lacking movement on the issue by other federal agencies or Congress, "the ball is in the NRC's court," Clements said. "It looks like this technology is moving toward licensing by the U.S. government without a nonproliferation assessment," he said.
Commission staff has indicated that the licensing process is ahead of schedule and construction of the Wilmington plant might be given the green light six months earlier than an official June 2012 deadline, according to GE-Hitachi officials.
One U.S. government official scoffed this week at the argument advanced by nonproliferation advocates that Washington should consider restraining commercial development of laser enrichment on the basis that it might help contain global spread of the technology.
"That's an esoteric point that does not have application in the real world," said the official, who declined to be named.
A U.S. decision not to license Global Laser Enrichment would mean that rights to the technology revert back to Australia, where Washington would no longer have control over it, potentially opening the door to greater proliferation concerns, according to the government official and GE-Hitachi representatives.