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The world leaders attending the Washington summit will be looking for ways to limit the spread of nuclear arms and the weapons-grade material used to make those bombs, but there is a related concern about a new technology that could make it much easier to secretly refine uranium for bombs.
NPR's Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS: 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.
Professor FRANCIS SLAKEY (Physicist, Georgetown University): If somebody's trying to build a covert plant to enrich uranium, they're going to have to move a lot of dirt. 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.
HARRIS: So 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.
Prof. SLAKEY: It has a lot of appeal, just in physics terms.
HARRIS: 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.
Prof. SLAKEY: That's the worry. That's the worry. Things are starting to get so small and so efficient that it's below the detection limit, which creates an enormous proliferation challenge.
HARRIS: 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 to build a plant.
In a recent opinion piece in Nature magazine, Slakey and a colleague at the UC Irvine asked the NRC to do something it normally doesn't do: that is, decide whether to scuttle a technology altogether because of its proliferation risks.
Prof. SLAKEY: Both my coauthor and I are advocates of nuclear power. We're strongly in favor of nuclear power, but we think it's in the best interests of expansion of nuclear power to manage - very carefully - the proliferation risks.
HARRIS: GE-Hitachi declined interview requests for this story, but in emailed 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.
But NRC chairman Greg Jaczko says his agency has national security responsibilities.
Mr. GREG JACZKO (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): It's a very new technology, or a novel technology. It's not similar to the kinds of enrichment facilities we've licensed in the past. So I certainly think that there may be some things there that we need to take a look at and make sure that we've got the right approach to ensuring that kind of protection of the technology and the material.
HARRIS: Jaczko said the 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.
Mr. JACZKO: We don't necessarily want to be changing the rules in the middle of the game, but we also want to make sure that we've looked at all the issues and properly addressed it.
HARRIS: But Francis Slakey at Georgetown doubts whether strong security measures alone will be adequate in this case.
Prof. SLAKEY: There's been a number of different technologies to enrich uranium. Every single one of them - despite best efforts to keep secrets -every single one of them has proliferated.
HARRIS: 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.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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