This Thursday in Wilmington, N.C., officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government agency responsible for overseeing the country’s nuclear energy activities, are slated to present a report laying out the environmental impacts of a proposed uranium enrichment facility, a key step in approving the facility’s license. While NRC staff will spend nearly five hours in Ballroom 5 of the Warwick Center at the University of North Carolina going over the details of their report, it is what they won’t discuss that has arms control advocates worried.
[Security1] Advocates are focusing their attention on the proposed General Electric Hitachi uranium enrichment plant in Wilmington to shine a spotlight on what they see as a systemic flaw at the NRC: The commission does not conduct broad assessments of the proliferation concerns associated with licensing projects.
The proposed facility would, if successful, use laser technology for the first time to enrich uranium to power commercial nuclear reactors. Arms control advocates say that commercialization of the technology in the United States could lead other countries to follow suit, raising concerns about the technology falling into the wrong hands. Countries like Iran and South Korea have worked in the past to develop laser enrichment programs, and the experts fear successful commercialization of the technology in the United States would prove the technology’s viability and lead them to redouble their efforts.
There are a number of lingering questions surrounding the technology. Arms control advocates say it is unclear just how easy it would be to produce highly enriched uranium, which is used to make nuclear weapons, with the technology. And they worry that laser enrichment facilities could be difficult to detect for purposes of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the group responsible for enforcing nuclear safeguards.
“The benefits might be worth the risks,” said James Acton of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But the problem we have at the moment is we don’t know what the risks are. We don’t know how serious or significant they are. There’s just no way to make an informed decisions.”
The NRC and the Department of Energy have no mandatory framework for answering these questions, the arms control advocates say. While the Energy Department has conducted voluntary assessments of proliferation risk in the past, the NRC has long maintained that it does not need to conduct such an analysis.
GE Hitachi, for its part, maintains that the Energy Department and the State Department have “been tasked” with considering proliferation risks of the project, but the company could not provide any details on the results of any such assessment. The NRC, though it maintains that a separate proliferation assessment is not warranted, says that it follows a number of procedures to “guard against the unauthorized transfer of the technology.”
Responding to a Jan. 20 letter from Tom Clements, Southeast nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, the NRC said the commission “considers a nuclear nonproliferation impact assessment outside the scope of the agency’s statutory responsibilities.” The letter — signed by Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards Director Michael Weber — notes that the NRC already “limits the availability of special nuclear material”; “controls proliferation of sensitive technologies, both information and equipment, through physical protection, personnel security, information protection, and export controls”; and “participates in international activities to control nuclear materials, technology, facilities and equipment.”
Clements, in an interview with TWI, said the unwillingness of NRC to conduct a proliferation assessment “reveals a dangerous double standard, in my opinion, that the U.S. is more concerned about the proliferation risk of other countries and not from U.S. technology and materials which in the long run may pose global proliferation risks.” Clements, who is a staunch opponent of nuclear power, said the Energy Department has voluntarily prepared proliferation assessments in the past, but there is no requirement to do so.
“The lack of proper review of the proliferation risk of nuclear technologies is a problem endemic with both the NRC and [the Energy Department],” Clements said. “I am not aware of any requirement for the preparation of a document assessing the proliferation risk of U.S.-origin nuclear technologies.”
Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says that other countries are more likely to begin to adopt laser enrichment technology if GE Hitachi is able to demonstrate its success on a commercial level. The federal government needs to determine what the proliferation risks are if other countries begin commercializing this technology, he said. “What we’ve really been looking for is just someone to take this into account before moving forward with the technology,” Pomper said. “There’s no kind of studies, there’s no kind of action in terms of the government or others doing anything about this.” Pomper added that the Energy Department has no “formal responsibility” for conducting such an assessment.
Pomper, along with a number of other arms control advocates, signed on to a Sept. 30, 2009, letter to the NRC raising questions about the proposed laser enrichment facility. “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,” the letter said.
Acton, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, raised similar concerns. Although he says he is not “ideologically opposed” to laser enrichment technology, he pointed to what he calls the “follow the leader” effect. “Once one country tries to commercialize a technology like laser enrichment, if it does so successfully, it’s more or less inevitable that other countries are going to follow,” he said.
Acton laid out two main questions that need to be answered in a proliferation assessment. The first is how easily the technology can produce highly enriched uranium, which is used in nuclear weapons. The second is whether laser enrichment facilities would be difficult to detect and inspect if they were used in other countries like Iran. Acton said it is very difficult to detect the presence of nuclear centrifuge plants for the purposes of inspection.
“So, what about laser enrichment? Would a small, secret laser enrichment plant be easier to detect than a centrifuge plant? If the answer is yes, I’m not particularly worried about it,” Acton said. “If it’s harder to detect than a centrifuge plant, it would add to our problem very significantly.”
Michael Tetuan, a spokesperson for GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, said “protecting this technology is obviously our highest concern.” He also said that both the State Department and Energy Department “have been tasked with looking at the proliferation aspects of this,” but he was not able to offer any further details on what specifically the departments considered. Tetuan also said that much of the information is likely classified, leaving little opportunity for the public to evaluate the proliferation risks.
Responding to the concerns, David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson, said, “The idea that U.S. development of laser enrichment technology would set an example that other countries would follow presupposes that other countries would be able to procure or develop the technology.”
NRC’s current procedures ensure against proliferation, McIntye said. “NRC limits the availability of special nuclear material; controls proliferation of sensitive technologies, both information and equipment, through physical protection, personnel security, information protection, and export controls; and participates in international activities to control nuclear materials, technology, facilities and equipment,” McIntyre said. He also noted that the government conducted an assessment of the proliferation risks of laser enrichment technology when it negotiated an agreement with Australia to allow use of the technology in the United States.
“As to whether U.S. development of laser enrichment capacity will set an example for other countries to follow, that is a policy question for the president, other federal agencies such as the Department of State, and the Congress,” McIntyre said.
A spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s trade association, directed requests for comment to GE Hitachi. An Energy Department spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.