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

December 23, 2013 Topic: Nuclear ProliferationWMDSecurity Region: United States

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.

In August 2010, an official for Global Laser Enrichment, which did not respond to requests for comment on this article, told Global Security Newswire that SILEX plants would have detectable signatures. However, she did not specify what those signatures were, and the understandable secrecy surrounding the technology has made it difficult to verify the claims.

Despite the proliferation fears, there may be features of laser processes that make them inapplicable to the large-scale production of the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. The specifics of the SILEX process may make it suitable for enriching to the low level needed for nuclear fuel but too cumbersome for creating higher-enriched material for a nuclear weapon.

Further, not all laser isotope separation methods are created equal, and there are also potential benefits outside the nuclear power industry. A laser isotope separation technique currently in development at the University of Texas is aimed at creating radioisotopes for use in medicine. According to Physics Professor Mark Raizen, who is working on the project, the technique, while useful for medical isotopes, may not even be applicable to separating uranium atoms for nuclear fuel.

Small-scale laser separation facilities could aid in the creation of valuable radioisotopes used in medical sciences for everything from diagnosing blood clots to treating certain types of cancer. Some industry observers are already warning of a potential worldwide medical isotope shortage; just last month, hospitals in British Columbia, Canada announced they would have to postpone some non-urgent medical exams because of a recent shortage of needed isotopes.

Experts have praised GE’s record of adhering to nuclear export controls, and of course the company has a strong financial reason to safeguard its proprietary technology. The technology itself is extremely advanced, supporters contend; it’s unlikely that most “rogue” proliferators could develop the technology if they tried.

Further highlighting the attempts to safeguard the technology, the SILEX process is believed to be the only privately held information also classified by the U.S. government. Under the Atomic Energy Act, “restricted data” encompasses all information related to nuclear weapons and related areas, regardless of ownership. In 2001, for the first time ever, this provision was used to classify the SILEX process, even the information was wholly owned by a private entity.

But critics argue that once the technology is developed, it will eventually spread. They point to past failures to guarantee the secrecy of top secret and significant technologies, such as the short-lived U.S. monopoly on the atomic bomb. Even if potential proliferators cannot steal or copy the process, merely demonstrating the commercial viability of the technology, some critics say, will be enough motivation for other countries to pursue their own laser enrichment programs.

The attraction of foreign entities to a laser-based enrichment capability may be especially strong given the specific characteristics of the international enrichment market. The current market for nuclear enrichment services is heavily concentrated with essentially only three providers—Russia, the European Union, and the United States. In fact, based on traditional measures of market concentration, a similarly concentrated domestic industry would likely violate U.S. antitrust laws. In such a heavily concentrated market, the emergence of a cheap, efficient domestic alternative like SILEX may be the incentive some countries need to explore developing their own independent fuel sources and nuclear programs.

“One of the things that sometimes stops countries from pursuing nuclear power is they don’t like the idea that they have to buy their fuel from the U.S. or Europe or Russia. But now if they could enrich themselves, that makes nuclear power more attractive,” said Cohen. “You may then have a country that had not thought of building a nuclear bomb before. But now, there you are with your own plant enriching fuel and it just becomes easier,” Cohen added.

There are also questions about whether the current nonproliferation architecture, built in a time of centrifuge and gaseous diffusion plants, can successfully regulate and safeguard the emerging technology.

Robert Shaw, Research Associate and Export Control Instructor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said that while secrecy precludes a thorough analysis, existing export controls on laser-based enrichment, coupled with GE’s and Hitachi’s “top-notch” export control compliance programs are likely sufficient to prevent export to potential proliferators. He also noted that current state-level and international export control guidelines are sufficiently broad to capture emerging technologies, even if they are not explicitly listed in the guidelines.

“One of the provisions that is in the Commerce Department regulations is ‘catch all,” said Shaw. “This means that if the exporter knows or has reason to know that an item to be exported has a likelihood of supporting WMD proliferation, then that exporter is required to seek an export license regardless of the level of technology or whether its on a control list.”