Being a pro-nuclear activist can cause occasional frustrations, especially considering how easy it is to get stuck in circular arguments with groups holding conflicting views about the same aspect of nuclear technology.
One topic associated with nuclear energy production that can lead to frustrating arguments is the question of cost. People like Amory Lovins and Joe Romm oppose nuclear energy because they claim that it costs too much and displaces investments that should – in their opinion – be directed towards using less energy altogether and towards developing wind, solar, and geothermal sources for those energy needs that remain after all possible efficiencies have been wrung out. Lovins preaches a seductive gospel, especially for Americans who actually believe that there is a free lunch and that their neighbors are terribly wasteful.
In fact, there are some aspects of Lovins’s preachings that are useful and reasonable – it is a valid part of any good engineering practice to work to eliminate waste, to refine production methods, to get rid of production path processes that add cost without adding value, and to choose production methods that reduce the energy expenditure required to produce a high quality, finished product. In fact, there are a number of engineers at General Electric (GE) who have achieved great success in their careers by working on efficiency, reducing waste, and improving production. A long time focus area has been improvements in the process of creating commercially useful fuel for nuclear reactors.
One of the major cost components of that rather complex process is “enrichment”, the process that converts natural uranium, which has a fissile material concentration of just 0.7%, into low enriched uranium for light water reactors, which requires a fissile material concentration of between 3 and 5 percent.
Aside: I put enrichment into quotes because more accurate terms for the process would be “refinement”, “purification” or “separation” because there is no part of the process in a traditional operation where fissile material is added to enrich a stream of material, instead, the non fertile portion of natural uranium is selectively taken out of the stream, leaving behind a material with a higher portion of fertile material. This is not unlike the refinement process used in separating crude oil into its various components. However, “enrichment” is the chosen term of art for the process of converting natural uranium to something more useful in a light water reactor. End aside.
In the early days of nuclear energy development, the United States had a global monopoly on uranium enrichment because only the United States had invested the national wealth required to build a plant using gaseous diffusion, an energy intensive process that took thousands of stages using expensive materials that had to be carefully fabricated to produce the separation membranes. Powering our early enrichment plants required the electricity output of a couple of large coal fired power plants and was the source of the early anti-nuclear argument that producing fuel for nuclear plants actually consumed more electricity than the plants produced.
There have been countless improvements to both the fuel consumption and the enrichment process since those early days, and nuclear plants currently achieve extremely low fuel costs that reflect the small amount of energy required for each unit of fuel. The current average nuclear fuel cost in the US is roughly 0.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, with enrichment costs still being a significant portion of that total cost.
GE, always looking for ways to improve processes and to find a competitive advantage, recognized that the isotope separation process developed in Australia and known as SILEX (separation of isotopes by laser excitation) offered a path that had a good probability of resulting in lower enrichment costs. They calculated that the initial plant costs might be smaller for each unit of production than the cost of the current world standard production method using very high speed centrifuges and they also determined that there was a potential operating cost savings through the use of less input power. In 2006, GE signed a development agreement with the technology researchers.
Aside: Laser isotope separation was not invented in Australia, but the US gave up on the process in the 1990s after spending upwards of $2 billion on it. End Aside.
After several years of refinement in their Wilmington, NC laboratories the SILEX team (GE, Hitachi, and Cameco), operating under both the classification system of the United States and Australian governments and the well-respected GE commercial security methods that ensure protection of trade secrets offering competitive advantage, have apparently achieved some success in their efforts to apply the techniques in commercially useful production equipment.
An article in the November 16, 2009 issue of Forbes Magazine titled GE Enriches Its Nukes Business provides some details about GE’s enrichment business opportunties, but I also enjoyed reading an article titled Mom &: Pop: it’s time for energy policy with nuclear as base from WickedLocal.com out of Weymouth MA. That article helped me to understand that nuclear fuel enrichment business currently earns $7 billion each year. That is a blip in the world’s several trillion dollar per year energy business, but it is certainly a segment worth pursuing, especially as interest in new nuclear power plants develops significant momentum.
Now comes the frustration part. According to a recent article in Defense News titled Laser Enrichment Plan Draws Critics a couple of dozen “nuclear policy experts” have written a letter to the US Senate demanding that they hold hearings about the process. Their intention is to produce legislation that requires the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to “consider the dangers of proliferation before issuing a license for GLE to build a laser enrichment plant.”
Apparently, these “nuclear policy experts” are worried that the GE Laser Enrichment (GLE) process is too small, cheap and energy efficient. Why, if this closely guarded commercially useful secret were to get out, there is a (exceedingly remote) possibility that a nefarious group would be able to afford to build a factory and hide its use while they enrich enough uranium to a high enough percentage to use it to build a BOMB!
A laser enrichment plant might be one-quarter the size of an enrichment plant that uses today’s state-of-the-art centrifuges. The plant would also use much less electricity than a standard enrichment plant.
“You could hide an enrichment facility in a warehouse,” said Charles Ferguson, a nuclear energy and weapons expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
And that’s the danger.
“This specific method of uranium enrichment makes it easy to conceal and, consequently, extremely difficult for international nuclear inspectors to detect,” said Leonor Tomero, director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
As a pro-nuclear activist, I often engage in debate with people who are terribly concerned that nuclear energy is simply way too expensive, and should not be pursued because the cost would choke off the development of other useful technologies. When skilled engineers who have made a career out of solving cost challenges for competitive advantage
actually take on the challenge and make improvements that could significantly reduce costs and improve energy productivity, another group steps up. Their goal is to erect cost increasing road blocks under the guise of being worried that lower cost production methods might somehow escape and end up in the wrong hands. Senate hearings and NRC regulations can add years of delay and drive costs far higher than they would be in the absence of such activity.
It should be obvious to anyone who has ever dealt with commercial enterprises that have trade secrets offering competitive advantage that the potential of “leaks” from those enterprises is far lower than the potential of leaks from government agencies who are otherwise trusted with not only access to techniques that might be useful in weapons production, but actually finished weapons themselves. There is not a darn thing that slowing down the GLE commercialization path will do to reduce the danger of the use of nuclear weapons, but adding cost to the development process through bureaucratic actions could be of great use to the competitive suppliers in the business.
Potentially interested parties who could benefit from increasing the cost of GLE include other companies that are already established in the $7 billion per year enrichment business, foreign governments that supply enrichment services, and foreign governments that have already enriched materials that are being sold for blending down. Of course, there are also interested parties involved in the fossil fuel industry that tacitly and financially encourage ANY activity that will increase the cost of producing commercial energy using atomic fission. They only way they can continue to compete is to keep working to keep the cost of nuclear energy as high as possible.
Bottom line – I am excited by GLE’s laser excitement separation process. I wish I knew more about the details, but if I did, I would not be able to share them. The idea that this process will add to the risk that of another nuclear weapon being used to kill people is exceedingly remote – to the point where I suspect the motives of anyone who is working to use that argument against the development of the process.