Tag Archives: laser enrichment

Lasers for Nuclear Weapons

 Using spinning gas centrifuges to enrich fuel for nuclear bombs requires a structure the size of a department store, and enough electricity for some 10,000 homes. An alternative method being developed would make the search far more difficult...The alternative is to zap the uranium vapour with a powerful infra-red beam from a laser…At least 27 countries, by one tally, have worked on laser enrichment since the 1970s. Most gave up, largely because production batches were tiny. Now, however, two firms say that they have learned how to scale up the process.

Jeffrey Eerkens of Neutrek, a Californian research firm, says its laser process requires around half the space and electricity that centrifuges need. A competing laser method is offered by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a consortium of General Electric, Hitachi and Cameco, a Canadian uranium producer. It, too, requires less space. In 2012 GLE was awarded a licence to build a facility in North Carolina for the commercial production of reactor fuel.

America has classified the technology, but that may not stop it spreading. The most important bit of laser-enrichment know-how has already leaked, says Charles Ferguson, head of the Federation of American Scientists—namely, that companies now consider it to be practical. This will reinvigorate efforts by other countries to develop the technology for themselves….

Non-proliferation optimists think laser-enrichment might not work as well as advertised, because GLE has still not begun commercial production. But this may be only temporary, because the company says the price of enriched uranium is too low to justify completing the project. A regime keen for a more discreet path to the bomb would not bother with such considerations.

Monitoring nuclear weapons: Lasering the fuel, Economist Technology Quarterly,  Sept. 5, 2015

The Nuclear Proliferation Potential of Laser Enrichment

The following is being released by Physicians for Social Responsibility:  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is putting U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy at risk if it decides not to require a formal nuclear proliferation assessment as part of the licensing process for a uranium laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, N.C.  That’s the message from 19 nuclear non-proliferation experts in a letter sent today asking the NRC to fulfill its statutory responsibility to assess proliferation threats related to the technologies it regulates. The letter is available online at http://www.psr.org/nrcassessment.

Global Laser Enrichment, LLC, a joint venture of General Electric (USA), Hitachi (Japan) and Cameco (Canada), has applied for a license to operate a laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, based on Australian SILEX technology. The NRC licensing review schedule sets September 30, 2012 as the date of license issuance.  One of the authors of the letter, Catherine Thomasson, MD, executive director, Physicians for Social Responsibility, said:“It is a widely shared view that laser enrichment could be an undetectable stepping-stone to a clandestine nuclear weapons program. To strengthen U.S. policy and protect the U.S. and the world from nuclear proliferation, the NRC should systematically and thoroughly assess the proliferation risks of any new uranium enrichment technology BEFORE issuing a license allowing their development.”  Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, said: “If the U.S. is going to have moral authority in dealing with proliferation threats in other nations, such as Iran, it must do a better job of taking responsible steps in relation to proliferation threats in our own backyard. In fact, a persuasive case can be made that laser enrichment technology requires even more immediate action, since this is a known danger that can be addressed directly by the NRC under its existing regulatory authority.”

In the letter, the experts note that the NRC has no rules or requirements for a nuclear proliferation assessment as part of this licensing process. The experts are concerned that the Commission is falling short in its duties since a 2008 NRC manual on enrichment technology clearly states that laser enrichment presents “extra proliferation concerns due to the small size and high separation factors.”

Previous letters to the NRC asking for a proliferation assessment, signed by many of today’s signatories, have been rebuffed. NRC is on record stating that the National Environmental Policy Act does not require preparation of a proliferation assessment. However, a March 27, 2012 memorandum from the Congressional Research Service clearly concludes that the NRC has legal authority “to promulgate a regulation” requiring a proliferation assessment as part of the licensing process.  Both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 and the Atomic Energy Act are cited by the experts as statutory basis of the NRC’s responsibility to assess proliferation risks.

Excerpt, 19 Experts: Nuclear Proliferation Risks Of Laser Enrichment Require Fuller NRC Review, PRNewswire, Sept 5, 2012