Gas centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium sit in a plant in Piketon, Ohio, in 1984. The technology for laser-based enrichment is much smaller than technology using centrifuges, and would be easier to secretly develop for weapon production.
Gas centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium sit in a plant in Piketon, Ohio, in 1984. The technology for laser-based enrichment is much smaller than technology using centrifuges, and would be easier to secretly develop for weapon production. Wikimedia Commons
World leaders have gathered in Washington to talk about how to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. The discussions are mainly about keeping actual weapons, and weapons-grade material, under strict control.
Some researchers are also concerned about the spread of a new technology that could make it much easier to secretly refine uranium for bombs.
Current Technology Easier To Track
Right now, the technology to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons is big and cumbersome. Typically, countries build enormous centrifuge plants.
And Francis Slakey, a physicist at Georgetown University, says it's relatively easy to catch wind of a project like that.
"If someone's trying to build a covert plant to enrich uranium, they're going to have to move a lot of dirt," Slakey says. "We're going to see that with our satellites. They're going to have to feed it a lot of power. So we're either going to see power lines going in, we're going to see the construction of a dedicated power plant. Or maybe it's going to even just glow, and our infrared sensors can pick it up."
Slakey is nervous about a new technology that's been developed to enrich uranium. It's intended to make fuel for nuclear power plants — but it could be used for weapons, too. This technology uses lasers to separate out the desired isotope of uranium.
"It has a lot of appeal, just in physics terms," he says.
A Dangerously Small Footprint
But the downside is that a laser-based enrichment plant can be much smaller and use much less electricity. And that could make a clandestine operation much harder to detect, he says.
"That's the worry — things are starting to get so small and so efficient that it's below the detection limit," Slakey says. "Which creates an enormous proliferation challenge."
More than a dozen nations have tried at one time or another to develop laser enrichment technologies, Slakey says. Most gave up, but an Australian company called Silex has apparently succeeded.
That technology has been licensed to General Electric-Hitachi in the United States, and that company has applied for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build a plant.
In a recent opinion piece in Nature, Slakey and a colleague at the University of California, Irvine asked the NRC to do something it normally doesn't do — decide whether to scuttle a technology altogether because of its proliferation risks.
"Both my co-author and I are advocates of nuclear power," Slakey says. "We're strongly in favor of nuclear power, but we think it's in the best interest in expansion of nuclear power to manage very carefully the proliferation risks."
GE-Hitachi declined interview requests for this story, but in e-mailed comments, the company said the NRC should not judge proliferation risks as part of its licensing process. The company says it already has the go-ahead from other federal agencies that deal with proliferation.
'Every Single One Of Them Has Proliferated'
But NRC chairman Greg Jaczko says his agency has national security responsibilities.
"It's a very new technology, or a novel technology," says Jaczko. "It's not similar to the kinds of enrichment facilities we've licensed in the past. So, I certainly think there may be some things we need to take a look at and make sure we've got the right approach to ensuring that kind of protection of the technology and the material."
Jaczko said that review would focus on whether the company's security measures are adequate to protect the secrets of the technology.
That's a more limited question than asking whether the technology is inherently risky and simply shouldn't be developed at all. The NRC has not historically considered such sweeping questions, and is cautious about starting that now.
"We don't necessarily want to be changing the rules in the middle of the game," he says, "but we also want to make sure we've looked at all the issues and properly addressed it."
But Slakey, at Georgetown, doubts whether strong secrecy measures alone will be adequate in this case.
"There's been a number of different technologies to enrich uranium," Slakey says. "Every single one of them — despite best efforts to keep secrets — every single one of them has proliferated."
This one will eventually spread as well, he figures. But it's likely to take a lot longer if no legitimate user presses forward to perfect it in the first place.