This time from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a number of anti-nuclear activists are up in arms about the SILEX process. It’s a type of laser-based isotope enrichment which is currently ready to move from the laboratory to industrial-scale pilot plants.
Here are some major points from the article “SILEX and Proliferation” by Scott Kemp, along with my responses.
SILEX is a new enrichment technology that happens to be well suited for making nuclear weapons. The benefits of commercializing SILEX are not yet established, but the proliferation risks are significant.
It is not any more “well suited” to nuclear weapons production than to commercial fuel production nor is the benefit of the process not established. Any method of enrichment can be used to produce highly enriched or low enrichment uranium. It is simply an issue of how many cycles of enrichment the material is subjected to. This is true of gaseous diffusion, gas centrifuge enrichment and all other types. As such, any facility that can produce low levels of enrichment for power reactors can also produce highly enriched uranium, although at lower quantities. SILEX is not unique in its ability to be adapted to any level of enrichment.
The advantage of commercialization is simply that it has the potential to be more efficient when it comes to producing enriched uranium. Enrichment is a necessarily energy intensive process involving high facilities. Laser-based methods are the next step in reducing enrichment costs. Right now, additional enrichment capacity is badly needed. Much of the enriched uranium sold for commercial fuel comes from the down blending of highly enriched uranium from Russian nuclear weapons. However, that stockpile is not going to last forever. The Megatons to Megawatts program, a partnership between the United States and Russia is due to end in 2013, potentially increasing the global need for uranium enrichment dramatically.
The long term solution may be to switch to fuel cycles that do not require uranium enrichment, but for the time being, it is a vital part of the fuel cycle.
Dozens of countries are poised to copy SILEX if a US project demonstrates that the technology can be built on a commercial scale. The technical barriers, to the extent they exist, are not likely to endure the test of time.
This is a silly argument that has been made many times before. The US is not the only game in town and whether or not the US decides to pursue this technology or shoot itself in the foot by not doing so will not change anything. We went through this same thing with gas centrifuge technology. The US failed to fully commercialize gas centrifuges out of similar fears and today we are left using the antiquated method of gaseous diffusion while all other countries switched to the more effective centrifuge method years ago.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has refused to consider the proliferation risk in its decision to issue a license for the first commercial SILEX facility, despite a statutory obligation to do so. Only a few weeks remain for Congress to intervene.
Lasers exist. The technology exists to tune them to the frequencies of uranium isotopes. The theory behind the system is well known. The US is not the only game in town. Whether the US peruses this technology has no bearing on proliferation outside the US. We can only control whether we choose to use it for weapons. I would not expect that the US would, of course, because we already have a massive surplus of weapons materials stockpiled, so even if we were to resume building nuclear weapons, it would be many years before we’d have to worry about making more nuclear weapons materials.
As for other countries and their nuclear aspirations, there’s nothing the NRC can do about that. If we can do anything about that at all, it will be through diplomatic channels.
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, PDF 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.”
Lets be clear on something. Nations that want to acquire nuclear weapons will do so. Using SILEX may well be easier than the gas centrifuge method, or at least it will be in the near future, due to the availability of high quality dye-tuned lasers. That’s just how it is. Nation states can make nuclear weapons if they wish to do so. However, the process will never be “easy” by most standards. Though the facility could be reasonably small (at least by comparison to other enrichment systems) it would still cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It would still require a great deal of technical expertise.
And that’s only part of the problem. Building a nuclear weapon requires complex meteorology, specialized materials and fabrication methods, extreme precision of manufacturing and numerous other technical challenges. These are not impossible things for a nation state to do, but they’re not simple or easy. It requires, and likely will always require, at least a few years and a major technical commitment.
That said, it is easier today than it was in decades past. Today there are high power computers to aid in the process. Rapid prototyping could aid in fabricating some of the components. High quality alloys can be bought on the international market. However, that’s just how it is. Technology advances and makes things easier. You can’t stop that.
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.
Yes, and diode lasers will continue to be improved, because, like it or not, there are numerous areas where they are useful. They have an important roll in industry, data storage and medicine. You can’t force technology like this to stand still.
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 PDF (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 PDF 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.
Unproven benefits? Fine. So let it be privately financed. That’s how most cutting edge technologies get developed. They start off with an uncertain future and some investors are willing to take the risk that they won’t ever become viable in order to profit if they do. Sometimes they don’t and sometimes they do. And when they do, it makes the losses worthwhile. That’s how venture capital works.
I’d be willing to put some risk capital into this technology. I might lose it, and I’d accept that, but it definitely has potential for big returns.
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.
Fat chance that would ever happen. This is not some kind of secret technology. This is basic physics. You can’t keep that genie in the bottle. It’s known that you can enrich uranium with lasers. It has been known for years. The only issues now are working out some of the procedural issues in making it a reality and producing suitably powerful lasers at a reasonable cost. The US-Australia partnership is not the only game in town. The cat is out of the bag.
This entry was posted on Monday, August 13th, 2012 at 2:56 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Good Science, Nuclear, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
View blog reactions