Lasers, Uranium, and Proliferation

National Public Radio looks at an emerging proliferation risk—a method of enriching uranium to make fuel for nuclear power using lasers. They spoke to Francis Slakey, a physicist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.:

... 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.

Silex's Web site is here and the Nature article here. In related news, Mexico, the United States, and Canada announced an agreement today to convert a research reactor in Mexico from using highly-enriched uranium to one that can use a much lower grade.