In what is truly an abdication of responsibility, the staff of the U.S. Regulatory Commission on Tuesday approved issuance of an operating license to GE-Hitachi (GEH) for construction of the first ever laser enrichment facility. And in an uncharacteristic bureaucratic sleight-of-hand, the NRC will not make a decision on a pending petition requesting that it require proliferation assessments as part of its licensing process for any new uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing technologies until November, well after the GEH license which prompted the petition has been issued. In taking this action, the Commission and staff refuse to see the forest through the trees. While they have insisted that proliferation concerns have been taken into account in the licensing process, the NRC has completely missed the point of all the concern: that providing the blessing to GE-Hitachi for a laser enrichment facility demonstrates that laser enrichment can actually work provides a major impetus to would-be proliferators to renew their quest for the technology. Actual construction of such a facility would the proliferation coup-de-gras.
While the NRC Commission still has the opportunity to halt issuance of the license, writes Elaine Grossman, it is unlikely to do so.
However, there may be another little snag in GEH plans: that the market does not warrant construction of a new enrichment facility. While GEH contends that their laser enrichment plant could produce uranium for nuclear power plants more cheaply and with a smaller footprint – thus making more attractive for would-be proliferators – it also has to be economically feasible. GEH seems to be signaling that the time may not be ripe. In addition, there is likely to be no option for GEH to build any of these facilities overseas. Attempts to export the technology would come under the jurisdiction of an interagency group comprised of the Departments of Commerce and State, among others. Given the proliferation concerns related to any enrichment or reprocessing facility, it is unlikely such an export request would be granted.
That leaves GEH with domestic production for domestic and foreign customers. In that case, GEH would have to offer a significantly less costly supply of enriched uranium in order to lure customers from competitors. But, as Francis Slakey and Linda Cohen wrote in a March 2010 edition of Nature, that is not likely either. Slakey and Cohen wrote that, despite the likelihood that laser enrichment would be at least double the efficiency of today’s best enrichment technologies – per Moore’s law – this improvement is likely to offer only a marginal cost advantage over existing enrichment technologies. And even a meager savings for households will still pale in comparison to the proliferation risks presented by this technology.
It is disappointing that the NRC chose to follow a timeworn, yet potentially outdated method for approving the laser enrichment license application. While the NRC staff made the decision using its existing, by-the-book regulatory structure, they failed to acknowledge a changed proliferation environment. They failed to see the future implications of their decision. And when another country surreptitiously develops this technology, emboldened by the NRC decision, and enriches uranium beyond 20% – as the North Koreans did – we should not be surprised. Because, as that hackneyed aphorism by George Santayana goes, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”