|USEC via The New York Times
A line of centrifuges purified uranium at an Ohio plant owned by the USEC energy company. A breakthrough with lasers promises to make the enrichment process easier and cheaper. (Usec via The New York Times)
Laser process adds to worry over bomb
NEW YORK - Scientists have long sought easier ways to make the costly material known as enriched uranium - the fuel of nuclear reactors and bombs, now produced only in giant industrial plants.
One idea, a half-century old, has been to do it with nothing more substantial than lasers and their rays of concentrated light. This futuristic approach has always proved too expensive and difficult for anything but laboratory experimentation. Until now.
In a little-known effort,
That might be good news for the nuclear industry. But critics fear that if the work succeeds and the secret gets out, rogue states and terrorists could make bomb fuel in much smaller plants that are difficult to detect.
Iran has already succeeded with laser enrichment in the lab, and nuclear scientists worry that GE’s accomplishment might inspire Tehran to build a plant easily hidden from the world’s eyes.
Backers of the laser plan call those fears unwarranted and praise the technology as a windfall for a world increasingly leery of fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases.
But critics want a detailed risk assessment. Recently, they petitioned Washington for a formal evaluation of whether the laser initiative could backfire and speed the global spread of nuclear arms.
“We’re on the verge of a new route to the bomb,’’ said Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist who advised President Clinton and now teaches at Princeton University. “We should have learned enough by now to do an assessment before we let this kind of thing out.’’
New varieties of enrichment are considered potentially dangerous because they can simplify the hardest part of building a bomb - obtaining the fuel.
GE, an atomic pioneer and one of the world’s largest companies, says its initial success began in July 2009 at a facility just north of Wilmington, N.C., that is jointly owned with
“We are currently optimizing the design,’’ Christopher J. Monetta, president of Global Laser Enrichment, a subsidiary of GE and Hitachi, said in an interview.
The company foresees “substantial demand for nuclear fuel,’’ he added, while conceding that global jitters from the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan “do create some uncertainty.’’ GE made those reactors.
Donald M. Kerr, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons lab who was recently briefed on GE’s advance, said in an interview that it looked like a breakthrough after decades of exaggerated claims.
Laser enrichment, he said, has gone from “an oversold, overpromised set of technologies’’ to what “appears to be close to a real industrial process.’’
For now, the big uncertainty centers on whether federal regulators will grant the planned complex a commercial license. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is weighing that issue and has promised GE to make a decision by next year.
The Obama administration has taken no public stance on plans for the Wilmington plant. But President Obama has a record of supporting nuclear power as well as aggressive efforts to curtail the bomb’s spread. The question is whether those goals now conflict.
The first laser flashed to life in 1960. Soon after, scientists talked excitedly about using the innovation to shrink the size of enrichment plants, making them far cheaper to build and run.
“It was in the air,’’ recalled Leonard R. Solon, a physicist who worked for a New York company that in early 1963 suggested the idea to the federal government.
The plan was to exploit the extraordinary purity of laser light to selectively excite uranium’s rare form. In theory, the resulting agitation would ease identification of the precious isotope and aid its extraction.
The fervor over the discovery cooled by the 1990s as laser separation turned out to be extremely hard to make economically feasible.
Not everyone gave up. Twenty miles southwest of Sydney, in a wooded region, Horst Struve and Michael Goldsworthy kept tinkering with the idea at a government institute. About 1994, the two men said they had a major advance.
The inventors called their idea SILEX, for separation of isotopes by laser excitation. “Our approach is completely different,’’ Goldsworthy, a physicist, told a Parliamentary hearing.
An old black-and-white photograph of the sensitive technology - perhaps the only image of its kind in existence publicly - shows an array of pipes and low cabinets about the size of a small truck.
In May 2006, GE bought the rights to SILEX. Andrew C. White, the president of the company’s nuclear business, hailed the technology as “game-changing.’’
Monetta of Global Laser Enrichment, the GE-Hitachi subsidiary, said the envisioned plant would enrich enough uranium annually to fuel up to 60 large reactors. In theory, that could power more than 42 million homes - about a third of all housing units in the United States.
The laser advance, he added, will promote energy security “since it is a domestic source.’’