Analyzing Emerging Laser Enrichment Technologies for Early Signs of Proliferation Risk
For decades, advocates of laser enrichment promised that once fully developed, the technology could enrich uranium at less cost, using less energy, and with a smaller physical footprint than any previous technology. This prospect would be welcomed by commercial entities that produce low-enriched uranium for the world’s nuclear power reactors, but these same attributes worry those concerned about nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, as the the technology could potentially make the production of bomb material easier and more difficult to detect.
Over time, those who doubted the wisdom of laser enrichment have taken solace in the fact that the promise of laser enrichment has never materialized. Early technologies, like AVLIS (atomic vapor laser isotope separation) and MLIS (molecular laser isotope separation), never reached a commercial potential. However, recent breakthroughs in a dimer-supression method known by the commercial name SILEX, show considerable promise. In 2012, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a license to allow a SILEX-based enrichment facility to be built in the United States.
As with any technological development, one expects crosscutting consequences. Laser enrichment might, in some ways, have the effect of reducing proliferation dangers, while simultaneously increasing the risk in others. Its impact might vary by the particular context, or with variables external to the technology itself. Unfortunately, there is no systematic assessment of the potential security risk posed by new developments in laser enrichment. At the time of the NRC decision, The American Physical Society petitioned the NRC to conduct an assessment, and LNSP's Scott Kemp was invited by the NRC Chairman to brief the staff on the benefits of conducting such an assessment. NRC commisioners became split over the issue, some feeling a that such an assessment should come first, while others feeling that they should not hold up the license and impose business risk to the applicant. Without a concensus, however, no NRC study of the risks could be performed.
Although extraordinary, indecision from the NRC means the United States is supporting the development of a novel proliferation and nuclear-security relevant technology without any public discussion or policy analysis of its potential impact on security. LNSP is working to provide that analysis through a series of technical and policy sudies.
The LNSP laser enrichment project is organized jointly with the MIT Security Studies Program.
- R. Scott Kemp, "SILEX and Proliferation," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 30 July 2012.