Laser Uranium Enrichment Undermines US Nuclear Non-Proliferation Efforts

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Travis Sharp, 202-546-0795 ext. 2105

Laser Uranium Enrichment Undermines US Nuclear Non-Proliferation Efforts

WASHINGTON - Experts last week warned that a
proposed uranium enrichment nuclear facility in Wilmington,
NC would undermine U.S. efforts to prevent the spread
of nuclear weapons and materials in other countries.

In a letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the experts
noted that the planned Global Laser Enrichment Commercial Facility would
complicate diplomatic efforts to discourage the use of this technology in other
countries. They explained that, "Should
the United States be seen to embrace the use of laser isotope enrichment as a
commercially viable technology, there can be little question that other states
will be strongly encouraged to follow this lead and develop such technology for
their own use
," and that, "Given the great difficulty of detecting laser isotope enrichment
facilities, their spread could undermine U.S. nonproliferation efforts and the
ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm the absence of
undeclared nuclear activities in nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)
non-nuclear-weapon states
."

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a license request
by General Electric-Hitachi for its planned Global Laser Enrichment Commercial
Facility. 

Laser technology would be used as an alternative to centrifuge or
gaseous diffusion to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel. The use of this
uranium enrichment technology could detract from U.S. and international security
efforts to detect and monitor nuclear programs worldwide as global interest in
nuclear power grows. If enriched to a concentration of 20% uranium 235 or
higher, enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons.

A covert enrichment facility using laser technology would be harder to
detect because it would use less energy and be of smaller size, and thereby be
easier to hide. 

A laser uranium research program in Iran escaped detection in
2002. Another laser enrichment research experiment was also detected in South Korea
in 2004 after several years. The discovery of undeclared centrifuges
enrichment facilities in Iran, at Natanz in 2002 and more recently at Qom,
underscore the importance of being able to detect covert facilities that could
be used to make nuclear weapons-usable material.

The full text of the letter is below and available
online
. The attachments referred to in the letter are "Nuclear
Power, Disarmament and Technological Restraint" by James Acton, Survival, Vol 51 No. 4, August-September
2009, pp.101-126, and "Laser Enrichment: Separation Anxiety," by
Jack Boureston and Charles D. Ferguson,
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
, vol. 61, no. 2, March-
April 2005, pp. 14-18, available
online
.

September 30, 2009

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Washington,
DC

 

Dear Members of the Commission:

We believe the potential demonstration effect on other states from
licensing the General Electric-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment Commercial
Facility (Docket No. 70-7016) in Wilmington,
North Carolina raises significant
proliferation issues.  Should the United States be seen to embrace the use
of laser isotope enrichment as a commercially viable technology, there can be
little question that other states will be strongly encouraged to follow this
lead and develop such technology for their own use.  Given the great
difficulty of detecting laser isotope enrichment facilities, their spread could
undermine U.S.
nonproliferation efforts and the ability of the International Atomic Energy
Agency to confirm the absence of undeclared nuclear activities in nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) non-nuclear-weapon states.  The rationale
for such concerns is set forth in greater detail in the attached articles by
two of the signers.

Accordingly, we request (1) that the Commission makes the potential of
this facility to contribute to the spread of laser isotope enrichment
technology-and thus to the increased risk of nuclear
proliferation-an explicit factor in its decision, and (2) that the
Commission prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on the
licensing of laser isotope separation facilities that includes specific
consideration of the demonstration effect of such U.S. action on international
proliferation risks.

 

Dr.  James Acton, Nonproliferation Associate

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

 

David Albright, President

Institute for Science and International Security

 

Thomas B. Cochran, Senior Scientist,

Natural Resources Defense Council

 

Dr. Charles Ferguson, Senior Fellow for Science and Technology

Council on Foreign Relations

 

John Isaacs, Executive
Director

Council for a Livable World

 

Daryl Kimball, Executive Director

Arms Control Association

 

Miles A. Pomper, Senior
Research Associate

James Martin
Center for
Nonproliferation Studies

Monterey Institute of International Studies

 

Leonard S. Spector, Deputy Director

James
Martin Center
for Nonproliferation Studies

Monterey Institute of International Studies

 

*Institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only

###

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