In July, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held its final hearing to license the world's first facility to enrich uranium on a commercial scale using lasers. For years, experts have warned that laser enrichment, known as SILEX (separation of isotopes by laser excitation), would be particularly good at making highly enriched uranium -- the ingredient needed to make nuclear weapons -- and that a commercial venture could stimulate proliferation. That's why the Federation of American Scientists, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, a former US nuclear-weapons lab director, at least two congressmen, and dozens of others have called on the NRC to perform a proliferation assessment before licensing the proposed plant. In response, the NRC claims that nonproliferation assessments are outside the scope of their statutory responsibilities. Turning the cheek to such a grave matter of national security is not sound governance. If Congress or the NRC fails to act in the next few weeks, the new license will be issued, ushering in a watershed moment for nuclear proliferation.
SILEX is being developed by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a shell company half owned by foreign corporations. Its novel technology is licensed from Australia's Silex Systems Ltd., which has been trying to commercialize its process for over 20 years. Silex Systems agreed in 1999 to subject itself to US government control through a treaty between the United States and Australia. That treaty allows the company to court American investors, but it also allows the US government to regulate whether the technology can be deployed. Indeed, the opportunity to take SILEX off the market was part of the nonproliferation reasoning behind the agreement. A decade later, the moment of truth has arrived.
The proliferation problem. The concern with SILEX is that it is particularly suited for nuclear proliferation -- even better than centrifuges. A proliferation-scale centrifuge facility can be housed in a high school gym and run from a diesel generator. According to GLE, an equivalent SILEX plant would be 75 percent smaller and use less energy. SILEX can also enrich fuel-grade uranium to weapons-grade in fewer steps than a gas centrifuge, making Iran-style proliferation easier. Finally, SILEX produces no distinctive chemical or thermal emissions that would reveal a clandestine plant's location. A 1999 State Department nonproliferation assessment of SILEX stated that such a "facility might be easier to build without detection and could be a more efficient producer of high enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program."
GLE admits to all these issues, but the company claims -- in a seven-page assessment it refuses to publish -- that its technology is no easier to build than the centrifuge alternative. However, nearly every major technical SILEX challenge stems from its particularly complicated laser, a technology that is among the most rapidly advancing areas in applied physics. A single breakthrough in, say, high-power diode lasers would eliminate most of the challenge overnight.
Further, the hurdles GLE faces in developing a commercially viable technology are necessarily more difficult than those a rogue proliferator faces. A proliferation plant capable of making just one bomb per year could be a tiny fraction (0.0008) of the size of GLE's plant. Many technical challenges can be ignored if scale and efficiency aren't the main goals. That's why the Defense Intelligence Agency, in analyzing these programs, wrote: "These lasers … demonstrate the fact that low-budget academic research programs are capable of developing lasers suitable for limited-scale LIS [Laser Isotope Separation] of [Uranium-235], a fact that has ominous implications for the future proliferation of nuclear weapons."
SILEX could easily pose a proliferation threat comparable to or worse than centrifuges. However, even these arguments are a distraction from the more fundamental problem: Two viable paths to the bomb are worse than one.
If the US government is going to allow another proliferation pathway to emerge, that technology should at least provide public benefits over the alternatives; a responsible government would also require that those benefits outweigh the added proliferation risk.
Uncertain benefits. GLE claims its primary commercial interest in SILEX is its low operating costs. In 2006, Silex Systems set a goal for a cost of $30-$45 per SWU (kilogram separative work units) -- a target it now admits was pure conjecture. Compare this with the cost of centrifuge enrichment, which produces at between $10-$60 per SWU, depending on the labor costs and technology-set used. GLE's Rob Gereghty says the company has been working on a "test loop" since July 2009 but that studies on SILEX's commercial viability will take "years to complete." Nonetheless GLE wants a license to build a commercial-scale plant now -- without first demonstrating SILEX's viability or allowing the government to compare the undemonstrated commercial benefits against the inadequately studied proliferation risks.
Policy makers should also note that lower operating costs would not directly benefit the public, because the price of enrichment is not dependent on GLE's costs. Enrichment is not a competitive market, so even if SILEX can attain low operating costs, that figure only translates into greater profits for GLE and its foreign investors, not reduced prices for public utilities.
A commercial-scale SILEX facility doesn't seem to offer indirect benefits, either. Because of the contractual nature of the enrichment industry, SILEX is more likely to displace, rather than supplement, enrichment capacity at three already-licensed US enrichment plants -- leading to no net increase in US market share or the number of countries subject to US nonproliferation controls. Nor could SILEX be used to support domestic national security programs, because the treaty restricts it to civil applications. Clearly, an objective evaluation of benefits is needed before a plant is licensed.
US government response. While the NRC has often admirably ensured protections for public health and safety, it has so far refused to look at the critical question of proliferation. US law provides that the NRC "shall prescribe such regulations or orders as may be necessary or desirable to promote the Nation's common defense and security with regard to control, ownership, or possession of any equipment or device ... capable of separating the isotopes or uranium or enriching uranium." Proliferation would seem to be integral to "common defense and security." In March, lawyers at the Congressional Research Service issued an opinion affirming that the NRC does have the authority to require "an assessment detailing the proliferation risks." Nevertheless, the NRC says it "considers a nuclear nonproliferation impact assessment to be outside the scope of the agency's statutory responsibilities" as it pertains to "issues of international policy unrelated to the NRC's licensing criteria."
Instead, the NRC routinely cites the State Department's 1999 nonproliferation assessment, which analyzed proliferation risks before the United States entered the treaty. The implication being that the question at hand -- whether the NRC should license a commercial-scale facility -- has already been addressed. It has not. That assessment, completed years before GLE even existed, tackled the question of whether to leave SILEX to the Australians or form a treaty through which the US government would gain some control over SILEX. The State Department did not study whether the technology should be deployed commercially or what the proliferation implications of such a deployment would be.
At best, the NRC is searching for creative ways to avoid a proliferation assessment. At worst, the NRC is violating US law by treating a nondiscretionary obligation as one that can be ignored.
Some American officials fear that, if the technology is not commercialized in the United States, Silex Systems will take its technology elsewhere. That's a valid concern -- but only to the extent that Australia is willing to aggravate the United States by terminating the treaty and that Silex Systems could find new ways to commercialize its technology using information not developed by GLE. Article 16(3) of the US-Australia treaty guarantees that any information developed or learned over the course of the GLE collaboration can never be used for a project located outside US territory, even after the treaty has been terminated.
Besides, concern that Silex Systems might go elsewhere is even more reason for the United States to take the risks seriously and give SILEX a fair trial. If it is established that SILEX really is a good idea, then commercialization can proceed. If, however, it turns out that SILEX is not cost competitive or that the proliferation risks outweigh the social benefits, then it will be established that no nation should develop SILEX and the United States and Australia can work together to mothball the technology and prevent proliferation -- something the State Department's own analysis implies Australia is likely to do, given "Australia's strong commitment to the NPT and other elements of the nuclear nonproliferation regime."
Ticking clock. According to the State Department assessment, "It seems likely that success with SILEX would renew interest in laser enrichment by nations with benign intent as well as by proliferants with an interest in finding an easier route to acquiring fissile material for nuclear weapons." At least 27 countries -- including North Korea and Iran -- have dabbled with laser enrichment. Recently, South Korea and China began courting US laser-enrichment experts, and in April India purchased a SILEX-type laser.
As GLE progresses, more sensitive information will leak, and more states will become interested in SILEX. It is time we study whether the benefits of this project outweigh the proliferation risks. There is plenty of time to conduct that study -- during GLE's "years" of pre-commercialization research. Meanwhile, the NRC can hold GLE's license, with final decision pending a positive nonproliferation review. When a nation's regulator fails to regulate, it leads to unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences. Unless Congress or the NRC commissioners intervene now, SILEX could become America's proliferation Fukushima.