Is America About to Launch a New Wave of Nuclear Proliferation?

A promising new technology could make uranium enrichment a lot more efficient—and easier to hide.

In less than a year, a little-covered development in uranium enrichment technology has pitted nonproliferation activists against the nuclear industry. Depending on whom you ask, it promises to revolutionize the nuclear fuel cycle or threaten to exacerbate global nuclear-weapons-proliferation risks. The culprit: a new enrichment technique known as the separation of isotopes by laser excitation, or SILEX.

While both the centrifuge and gaseous diffusion processes—the dominant forms of enrichment today—directly exploit mass differentials between the nonfissile uranium-238 and fissile uranium-235 isotopes, laser-based methods instead generally rely on differences in how those isotopes respond to electromagnetic excitation. Lasers can be used to produce different electric charges in the isotopes, which can then be separated and collected by passing them through an electric field.

In the United States, large-scale efforts were undertaken in the 1970s to develop efficient laser-based systems that could be commercialized, but the technical barriers eventually proved too great and the efforts were largely abandoned.

But a SILEX plant is currently under construction in Wilmington, North Carolina, by Global Laser Enrichment, a cooperative endeavor between General Electric and Hitachi.

Michael Goldsworthy, CEO of SILEX Systems, which first developed and later licensed the technology to Global Laser Enrichment, has described laser enrichment as the “Holy Grail.” Its supporters say it could revolutionize the nuclear power industry.

Though the specifics of the SILEX process are highly confidential, Silex Systems has said that the technique will enjoy efficiency levels anywhere from 1.6 to 16 times higher than existing centrifuges. It would consume far less energy and have lower capital costs than existing methods. A cheaper, more efficient enrichment method, advocates say, could lower electricity costs and make nuclear power a more viable option in combating the risks of climate change.

The process could also help the U.S. maintain a foothold in the international enrichment market. Historically, much of the U.S. enrichment capacity relied on gaseous diffusion, which is much less efficient than centrifuges operated by the European Union or Russia. While it once had a near monopoly on enrichment in the West, the U.S. has slowly lost market share, declining from 39 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2008. A new generation of enrichment technology could increase U.S. competitiveness on the international market.

Despite the possible benefits, critics have argued that the potential costs of SILEX—and other laser-based techniques—are too great. For one, some have argued that the expected advantages are exaggerated and would largely accrue only to the company doing the enrichment, not to the average consumer.

A report co-authored by Stanford Economics Professor Linda Cohen and Georgetown Professor of Physics and Public Policy Francis Slakey sought to analyze the potential impact of the SILEX process from a cost-benefit perspective. Using what Cohen and Slakey described as “generous” assumptions, they projected that the anticipated economic benefits for the average American consumer were trivial—less than two dollars a month.

The expected paltry savings to the downstream consumer is largely a result of the particular cost profile of nuclear energy. Initial capital costs constitute the bulk of the costs of nuclear energy. Once a nuclear plant is built, however, fuel costs are much lower than coal or natural gas plants. Enrichment costs account for only 5 percent of the entire cost profile of nuclear-generated energy, meaning that even a substantial drop in the price of enrichment services would translate into only a relatively small fall in electricity bills.

Perhaps the greatest concern among critics is the potential of the technology to aid would-be proliferators. The potential high efficiency of the SILEX process compared to existing centrifuge technology increases the risk of any possible “breakout” scenarios. Today, fears of a possible breakout scenario with Iran are estimated at a few months. With a laser-based enrichment process, that timeline could shrink to a matter of weeks.

The very efficiency of the process also potentially makes it an especially attractive option for clandestine enrichment. Higher efficiency translates to smaller space and electricity needs, which means a smaller physical footprint and heat signature. Laser-based enrichment facilities may also avoid other common indicators of centrifuge and gaseous diffusion plants, such as nearby support facilities or electromagnetic indicators.

In fact, in 2003 and 2004, the IAEA reported on Iran’s attempts at covertly developing laser enrichment technology. In the summer of this year, the Institute for Science and International Security released a report citing satellite and open-source evidence that the country’s laser enrichment program may still be active. According to the IAEA, Iraq and South Korea also once had secret laser enrichment programs.