* Enrichment firm says laser method key to U.S. “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
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA, Oct 11 2012 (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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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.”
IRAN “POSSESSES” LASER TECHNOLOGY
General Electric said Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) – the GE-Hitachi company which would build the plant in the U.S. state of North Carolina – had “met – and in many cases exceeded – all regulations pertaining to safeguarding this technology.”
GLE head Chris Monetta said the laser method “could be one of the keys to the nation’s long-term energy security.”
However, some nuclear proliferation experts worry because plants enriching uranium with lasers could be smaller – and therefore even harder to discover – than the traditional facilities with rows and rows of centrifuge machines.
Lasers could also refine fuel-grade uranium to possible weapons grade in fewer steps than centrifuges, they say.
Those features could make laser enrichment an attractive option for any state wanting to develop covertly the capability to produce nuclear weapons, which the West is accusing Iran of doing with its centrifuge-based programme.
Tehran – which only disclosed the existence of its Fordow subterranean centrifuge site in 2009 after learning that Western spy services had spotted it – denies any nuclear bomb designs.
“The smaller physical footprint and lower energy requirements would make a clandestine laser facility more difficult to detect,” said Jim Walsh, a research associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program.
But Olli Heinonen, a former U.N. chief nuclear inspector, played down concerns that embarking on laser enrichment in the United States would cause the technology to spread elsewhere.
“Technology holders have been fairly good in recent years in protecting their secrets. Proliferation mainly took in place in the 1970s and 1980s due to poor export controls and legislation,” said Heinonen, now at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
His former employer, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has tried in vain to get more information about a 2010 statement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Tehran “possessed” laser enrichment technology but would not use it.
“Iran had its own laser programme, and they have got a good understanding about the process,” Heinonen said, referring to methods used before the GLE’s newer technology.
GROWING NUCLEAR FUEL MARKET
But laser enrichment is more difficult to master than centrifuges and the equipment used in Iran’s research has been dismantled and placed in storage under IAEA monitoring, said the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank.
“Based on the IAEA assessment it appears unlikely that Iran’s laser enrichment programme represents a serious proliferation threat,” IISS said in a 2011 report.
Centrifuges increase the ratio of the fissile isotope U-235 by spinning at supersonic speed, enriching up to 5 percent for power plants and 90 percent concentration for bombs.
Laser beams can also separate uranium isotopes, but MIT’s Kemp said the technology had been pursued unsuccessfully for decades. “Indeed we do not yet know whether” the technique to be used by GLE will work or not, he added.
Laser enrichment could produce half the refined uranium the United States needs each year for its nuclear reactors, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
General Electric plans to build the first plant on its campus in North Carolina, but it said a “commercialisation decision”, based on several factors, must still be made.
It would use lasers conceived by Australia-based Silex Systems Ltd and developed by experts of GLE, the GE-Hitachi partnership in which Cameco Corp., the world’s largest uranium producer, also holds a 24 percent stake.
Silex said on its web site that the uranium enrichment market was expected to grow to $20 billion by 2030 from $6 billion now, highlighting the technology’s commercial potential.
It said the method its scientists invented in the 1990s had several advantages over other ways to refine uranium: higher efficiency, lower operating costs and less capital expenditure.
But Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a non-governmental U.S.-based group, said such advantages also held nuclear proliferation risks.
The NRC’s approval of the license without a specific proliferation assessment “may well be a green light for the eventual spread of what could be a dangerous technology which has nuclear weapons applications,” Clements said.
Update on Lashkar Ab’ad: Iran’s Laser Enrichment Capabilities
February 24, 2014
On February 8 and 9, 2014, the International Atomic Energy (IAEA) and Iran held technical meetings within the Framework for Cooperation that was agreed between the parties in November 2013. Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement on seven practical measures Iran must implement by May 15, 2014, including one provision where Iran agreed to provide “mutually agreed relevant information and arranging for a technical visit to Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Centre,” the former location of Iran’s past undeclared uranium laser enrichment work. 1
This measure adds to an earlier one negotiated within the Framework for Cooperation in November 2013, in which Iran agreed to further clarify its 2010 announcement about its capability to enrich uranium with lasers. 2 According to the February 2014 IAEA Iran safeguards report, Iran at least partially explained this 2010 announcement. To resolve the outstanding concerns about laser enrichment, Iran will need to provide much greater cooperation than demonstrated so far.
Earlier ISIS Report on Iranian Laser Enrichment
In a 2013 ISIS Imagery Brief, ISIS used commercial satellite imagery to investigate the Lashkar Ab’ad site, where Iran conducted secret laser enrichment activities into 2003. Since this site was originally the home of a facility involved in a major violation of Iran’s safeguards agreement, the IAEA would want on-going visits to this site, particularly since it has remained involved in related activities, namely laser research and development. As described in the Imagery Brief, the IAEA is also expected to want to scrutinize this issue in more depth because Iran has taken other steps that have compounded suspicions that it has revived uranium laser enrichment activities. It has developed advanced lasers suitable for uranium enrichment, undertaken extensive construction at the Lashkar Ab’ad site during the last several years (see figures 1 and 2), and made a 2010 high-profile announcement about having a uranium laser enrichment capability.
The 2010 statement was made by then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a major exhibition sponsored by Iran’s National Center for Laser Science and Technology. He stated: “Today, we are capable of enriching uranium with lasers. It is now possible to do this using the same devices which are on display here in this exhibition”3 and that “using the laser technology for enriching uranium would lead to carrying out the enrichment process with a higher quality, accuracy and speed.”4
Former President Ahmadinejad stated that “the Iranian scientists have acquired the laser- operating uranium enrichment know-how but would put the technology on shelf for the moment.” 5
Laser enrichment poses a proliferation threat because, if properly engineered, it has the potential to dramatically advance the capabilities of proliferant states to secretly enrich uranium. Although enriching uranium with lasers on a production-scale appears extremely complicated, laser enrichment of uranium warrants concern as a potential way for a proliferant state to acquire significant quantities of highly enriched uranium. A covert laser uranium enrichment facility might escape detection by the IAEA and Western intelligence services because of the relatively small size and few external indicators of such plants. Additionally, Iran could conduct several necessary research and development activities of laser uranium enrichment under a non-nuclear cover.
Iran’s Initial Clarification on 2010 Announcement
In a January 18, 2014 letter to the IAEA, Iran stated that the 2010 statement was made based on its “past R&D experiences in the field of laser enrichment which ended in 2003” and that since then “there had not been any especially designed or prepared systems, equipment and components for use in laser-based enrichment plants in Iran.” 6 This statement appears to include that Iran has not operated a secret laser enrichment plant since 2003. This is a welcome statement, and it meets the requirement to “further clarify” the 2010 announcement, although one has to accept that it remains unverified by the IAEA. There is a more fundamental problem with the answer. It does not address the key concern raised by the 2010 announcement, namely that Iran is developing further its capability to enrich uranium with lasers, much of which would not involve actually using “especially designed or prepared” systems. Its current answer shows that Iran so far has taken a minimal approach to addressing the IAEA’s concerns about laser enrichment.
Under the new measure, Iran is to provide the IAEA with additional relevant information and arrange for a technical visit to Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Center. Iran should provide enough information and a sufficiently detailed technical visit to allow the IAEA to assess the status of Iran’s work on laser enrichment, including its current relevant developments and its future plans. Iran should also make available Iranian experts who can address the IAEA’s technical questions.
Figure 1. Digital Globe Imagery showing Lashkar Ab’ad site in June 2003 after the undeclared program was halted. The undeclared enrichment occurred in the larger building shown. While Iran was voluntarily implementing the provisions of the Additional Protocol from 2003 to 2006, the IAEA verified that Iran did not reconstitute enrichment activities at this site. Since 2006, Iran has allowed one IAEA visit to this site in 2008. During this visit, Iran told the IAEA its general plans for the site, including major construction projects. However, given that this visit was not an inspection, the IAEA inspectors were limited in what they could learn and verify about Iran’s past and present activities.
Figure 2. Early 2013 image of Lashkar Ab’ad site showing a greatly expanded facility. This site has conducted work on developing and manufacturing lasers and researching nanotechnology, some with the aid of lasers, according to Iranian statements and publications.
1. “IAEA and Iran Conclude Talks in Connection with Implementation of Framework for Cooperation,” IAEA, February 9, 2014, http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2014/iaea_iran090214.html. 2. David Albright and Andrea Stricker, Iran’s Negotiating Track with the IAEA, ISIS Report, November 26, 2013. http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/irans-negotiating-track-with-the-iaea/8 3. “Iran’s Latest Achievements in Laser Technology,” Iran Press TV video, February 8, 2010.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8snVEsyzvK4. 4. “Good Nuclear News, Iran Possesses Laser Enrichment Technology,” Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran Website, February 7, 2010, http://www.president.ir/en/20255 5. “Iran Scientists Gain Full Access to Laser Tech,” Islamic Invitation Turkey, February 8, 2010. 6. Director General, IAEA, Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, GOV/2014/10, February 20, 2014, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/iaea-iranreport-02202014.pdf.