I often suspect that the raison d’etre for the nuclear weapons non-proliferation community is to add barriers that restrict the beneficial use of nuclear energy. Many prominent spokespeople from that community can be counted on to make proclamations of worry for any innovation in the fuel cycle that improves performance, lowers costs, or reuses material. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor titled Will secret technology help rogue nations get nuclear weapons? illustrates another chapter in the long story of the how the people who claim to be focused on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons often aim their fire at slowing the spread of nuclear energy.
My suspicion is that the real goal for many in the movement really is a “no nukes” world where even beneficial uses of nuclear energy somehow disappear. I hope that most people recognize the futility and stupidity of attempting to achieve that result; the atomic genie is not going back into the bottle. However, even a major slowdown in the spread of nuclear energy can help some of the financial and political supporters of the non-proliferation community achieve what I suspect they really want – continued and increased wealth accumulation for the establishment non-nuclear energy interests.
According to the Monitor article, the technology that we are now supposed to worry about is a development known as SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation). The basic idea behind the technology has been around for several decades, but there is growing evidence that GLE (global laser enrichment, a partnership between GE, Hitachi and Cameco) is getting close to a commercially useful SILEX refinement that will enable uranium enrichment using less input power in a smaller facility than the centrifuges that are already a substantial technological improvement over the ancient gas diffusion technology developed during World War II.
Enrichment represents approximately one half of the total cost of manufacturing commercial nuclear fuel and it accounts for at least 75% of the energy invested in the fuel manufacturing processes. It seems that the very idea of making enrichment cheaper and more cost efficient causes worried hand wringing by people like Henry Sokolski, who make their living raising concerns about nuclear technology developments.
“The history of keeping dangerous nuclear technology secret is pretty poor,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. “An early enrichment approach called ‘gaseous diffusion’ technology got out and, after that, so did centrifuge technology. The question is: How would we handle this when SILEX gets out?”
What prevents a profusion of laser-enrichment plants now is the complexity of the process. But once SILEX is demonstrated, other nations with deep pockets are bound to follow, say Mr. Sokolski and others.
My view of this development is quite different. Lowering the amount of energy required to produce enriched fuel should be encouraged as a terrific development that can improve the already impressive energy return on investment (EROI) for nuclear energy and lower its “carbon footprint” – if the source of the enrichment electricity is still a mixture that includes fossil fuels.
I have no worries that refined SILEX technology would become widely available. GLE is a partnership composed of several large and successful industrial technology conglomerates. GE, in particular, has a long history of fierce protection of its “secret sauce” recipes for a variety of useful chemical, plastic and metal products. When I was in the plastics business, I learned that GE was famous for selling premium products created by combining a variety of commodity plastic materials in a creative way. Their products delivered performance and quality that no one else could match. The GE representatives knew that their materials could demand premium prices, not because of the brand name, but because processors recognized that they were superior to the alternatives.
SILEX is already a classified technology that is protected under the Atomic Energy Act. When it gets implemented with commercially useful machinery and control systems that result in a lower cost enrichment process it is HIGHLY unlikely that the companies who invest in developing that technology will allow it to leak to any competitors. Such leakage would eliminate a competitive advantage that could provide excellent profit margins for decades as GLE sells enrichment services into an already large and established market. If history is any guide, GLE will not use their production cost advantage as a way to compete on the price of the service.
My suspicion is that GLE will use their technology as a way to enable finer control of end product enrichment levels. Creatively applying their proprietary technology could allow nuclear engineers the ability to more flexibly load reactor cores with just the right fuel geometry to enable superior performance that lowers overall electricity production costs.
Anyone who has ever worked with a GE engineer or salesman should understand why I am highly skeptical of pressure groups that assume that technology that the company develops will easily leak out into the market, especially when it is a technology that has a development history similar to that of SILEX. GE people are pretty careful about protecting company intellectual property.
A fiendishly difficult technology, laser isotope separation has worked at the laboratory level but has confounded efforts by at least 20 countries to make it work on a commercial scale, says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, a signatory to the letter to the NRC.
Ferguson goes on to say that it would only be a matter of time before someone else developed commercial capability using the technology. I have less faith in the inevitability of technology developments without the kind of technical skills, experience and leadership that GLE can apply to the task. Fiendishly difficult technology can be solved, but it cannot be solved by just anyone or any group.
Insisting that keeping SILEX out of the market is the only way to protect the world from the risk that some rogue group or outlaw nation might use the process for nefarious uses exposes the real mission – I believe that the non-proliferation community will attempt to stop nuclear energy producers from using any innovation that improves cost and performance. The people who are dedicated to that mission are working to prevent an incredible potential gift to humanity – lower cost, cleaner energy.
Besides the fossil fuel pushers, the other interest group that might be cheering the efforts of the non-proliferation herd are the people who are already investing heavily in centrifuge-based enrichment facilities. URENCO USA, USEC, and Areva will be in direct competition with GEL and have financial motivations for wanting to make their progress a bit more difficult and costly.