Thursday, 25 October 2012

New laser technology stirs nuclear bomb proliferation fears
11 Oct 2012

  • Enrichment firm says laser method key to US "energy security"
  • Some nuclear experts worry about proliferation risks
  • They say laser enrichment plants smaller, harder to detect
  • Iran says it "possesses" laser know-how but won't use it

VIENNA, Oct 11 (Reuters)-A new way of making nuclear fuel with lasers may help cut costs and ensure energy security but could also make it easier for rogue states to secretly build nuclear weapons if they got hold of the know-how. A debate about the benefits and dangers of using lasers instead of centrifuges to enrich uranium underlines the sensitivities surrounding nuclear activity that can have both civilian and military applications.

Iran, whose underground centrifuge plants and history of hiding nuclear work from UN inspectors have raised Western suspicions of a covert atom bomb programme and prompted Israeli threats to attack Iranian nuclear sites, says it already has laser technology but experts doubt Tehran has mastered it.

Uranium can provide the explosive core of a nuclear warhead if refined to a high fissile concentration, explaining why any country or other actor interested in obtaining nuclear arms might be eager to learn about technical advances in enrichment.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last month issued a license to a partnership between General Electric Co, and Japan's Hitachi Ltd to build and run a laser enrichment plant for manufacturing reactor fuel. It would be the world's first facility to refine uranium on a commercial scale using lasers, a technique "particularly suited for nuclear proliferation", said Assistant Professor R. Scott Kemp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"It appears that they have allowed the license to go forward without a serious review of the proliferation implications", said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocacy and research group. An NRC spokesman said a State Department assessment in 1999 concluded essentially that it was in the U.S, interest to bring the Australian technology "here, where it could be properly safeguarded, rather than having other countries develop it".

Citing an NRC letter to U.S, lawmakers two years ago, David McIntyre added that NRC requirements-covering the facility's security and protection of classified information-"effectively protect against the threat of proliferation". Kimball disagreed. "History shows that even the best efforts to safeguard sensitive enrichment technologies can and will eventually fail".

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