General Electric says it has successfully tested a faster, cheaper way to produce nuclear reactor fuel, and is planning to commercialize the technology by building a facility in Wilmington, N.C. While the prospect of saving resources to generate energy at a lower price sounds like a breakthrough, scientists are concerned that the top-secret method of enrichment that GE is using will indirectly elevate proliferation risks around the world, thus inspiring rogue states to develop their own laser enrichment facilities for nuclear weapons.

The enrichment technology is the Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (Silex). It was developed by Silex of Australia in 1992. The technology company USEC funded early research on Silex, but abandoned it in favor of focusing on centrifuge enrichment. In 2006, GE signed an exclusive agreement to commercialize and license the technology and spearhead further research and development.

Although Silex is the only known method of laser enrichment that works and could be commercially viable, scientists are concerned because many countries have funded laser-enrichment projects. According to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, more than 20 countries have researched laser isotope separation techniques, including China, India, Iraq, Russia, Japan and Pakistan. Although they were unsuccessful, scientists say that putting Silex back into the public eye, regardless of the safeguards GE promises, poses a problem. Showing that it works could renew efforts by countries to develop the process.

“Once you popularize the technology, you draw attention to it and have people out there that have bits and pieces, and may talk to other people,” says a scientist knowledgeable about Silex, who asked to remain anonymous. “Anyone who has tried it, plus anyone who thinks this is a promising way forward” may try to use Silex if they see that it works.

“The people who were not able to do it in the past because they were using older styles of laser enrichment will say 'this is what we're doing wrong,'” the scientist adds. “In every country, there is a bureaucracy or interest section that may find this as an obvious and natural research agenda for them.”

GE has a different view. “There are considerable barriers that make the chances of development of the technology by potential proliferators highly unlikely,” says Christopher Monetta, president and CEO of GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment, in an email. “The process is technically complex and depends on the combination of . . . experts, complex technologies and significant investment. The advantage of laser enrichment is economical, not ease of development or deployment.”

In 2007, GE and Hitachi formed an alliance to develop nuclear energy, with one intention being the testing of Silex for commercial use. That company is GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy. In the same year, its subsidiary GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) received approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for R&D to test the method at its headquarters in Wilmington. In 2009, the company submitted a license request for a 600,000-sq.-ft. commercial uranium enrichment facility on a 100-acre site near to where GE operates a nuclear fuel manufacturing center and makes fuel assemblies.

If GE determines that Silex is economically feasible to produce on a large scale, the facility would enrich natural UF6 gas into the uranium-235 (U-235) isotope with lasers. Naturally occurring uranium ore contains 0.75% of the U-235 isotope. That concentration needs to be increased to 3-5 weight percent to transform the uranium into reactor fuel. The target capacity could be 6 million work units per year, enough to power 42 reactors annually.

GLE's material will be far less rich in U-235 than any kind of bomb material. Generally, nuclear weapons contain weight percent greater than 80-90%. So, security concerns about what happens to the material that is created at GLE's site are irrelevant. Instead, the debate is that if GLE proves that this once-dormant and powerful technology works, other countries may be inspired to try again.

One big concern about Silex is that it requires significantly less electricity, resources and facility space than gas centrifuge enrichment. Also, while governments are familiar with means for detecting gas centrifuge plants, the same methods do not exist for laser enrichment because it is so new.

A study group from the American Physical Society (APS) says in a report titled “Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Arsenal Downsizing,” that many of the good things GE is using to make a case about Silex—less use of resources and electricity and increased efficiency—are actually negatives that make it easier for rogue states to hide clandestine plants. GE says Silex needs a 25% smaller footprint than enrichment centrifuge technology.

“The study group found that some of the new enrichment and reprocessing technologies could represent proliferation 'game-changers' since they would lead to smaller, more efficient and possibly less expensive methods for the production and use of nuclear materials that would be more difficult to detect,” the report states.

GLE, however, maintains that proliferation of the process is unlikely. “The technology produces signatures which are evident without on-site inspection,” says Monetta in an email. “A plant would have to be of significant size, although smaller than a comparable centrifuge plant. Moreover, the process has other signatures that can be detected, but the details are classified.”

For GE to build the facility, it must go through a NRC licensing process, which requires submission of a proposal with safety and environmental information.

Timothy Johnson, NRC licensing project manager for the Wilmington facility, says GLE sent a letter of intent to the NRC. It outlined two steps: the first phase being the small-scale test loop of laser enrichment, followed by a larger facility. In 2008, NRC issued a license for the test phase, which involves making a small amount of the material to see how it works.

“They have a small device they use for . . . physics experiments, and they are planning on putting into operation a larger test separator,” says Johnson. “The concept of this was that the product and the tail streams would end up being recombined, and would go back into a feed—so they really wouldn't enrich anything other than for sampling.”

But Johnson says that NRC's next step in the licensing process—creating an environmental impact report—is scheduled for far later than it should have been. According to the most recent timeline, this step was scheduled to be completed last February, but now is slated for February 2012.

“It slipped,” Johnson says, noting that NRC tries to look at enrichment facilities under a 30-month schedule. “This one will end up being about four months more. Our original goal was to do it by June 2012.” The licensing decision that would green-light construction is expected in September 2012.

Johnson says that the schedule slip relates to a “safety issue,” but not one related to proliferation risks. GE still plans commercialization, but it could back out if Silex is not financially viable. Once GE obtains a license, it will be allowed to use Silex commercially for 40 years.

Under the review process, the public is permitted to contest the proposal for licensing, but Johnson says no such petitions were submitted. Despite this, scientists found other ways to take a stand against Silex. One example is an APS petition in June 2010 to request a rule change for NRC's licensing process. This would include a change in federal regulations to reflect that new nuclear facilities undergo a proliferation assessment from NRC as a condition of licensing. “Non-proliferation is not part of the license evaluation,” says APS in its report.

APS points out that NRC engaged in a non-proliferation assessment that allowed Silex technology to be transferred from Australia to the U.S., and that GE-Hitachi carried out an independent nuclear proliferation assessment of its facility. However, it was not necessary for GLE to provide the results to the NRC as a condition of licensing, which the society sees as problematic.

Johnson says that this request is outside NRC's jurisdiction and goes beyond what the commission is set up to do. He adds that because the commission has requirements to protect classified information, accounting of the materials and security measures for the spent fuel, it is not the body's responsibility to carry out a non-proliferation assessment.

“To deny an application because someone is proposing a better mousetrap seems to go well beyond what the NRC is supposed to be doing,” says Johnson.