Growing concerns about climate change have increased international and commercial interests in expanding nuclear energy, a carbon dioxide-free source of electricity.  Advances in new laser-based technology are promising to make uranium enrichment - a key component in the production of the fuel that powers nuclear power plants - cheaper and the plants that produce it, smaller. 

While smaller and cheaper may normally be considered innovative pluses, UCI economist Linda Cohen and Georgetown physicist Francis Slakey argue that with nuclear energy, risks far outweigh potential rewards earned through innovation.  They make their case in an opinion piece published in the March 4 issue of the journal Nature.
“The issue is that the technology and process used to make nuclear fuel for electricity is the same technology and process used to make nuclear fuel for bombs,” says Cohen.

According to estimates provided by the researchers, commercialization of the new laser-driven enrichment process – called separation of isotopes by laser excitation (SILEX) - would equate to a potential cost savings of no more than $2 per U.S. household per month.

“The cost savings from SILEX are an insignificant factor in whether nuclear power increases its share of either U.S. or global electricity production, and is thus irrelevant to a climate change solution,” says Cohen. Alternatively, she adds, the new technology “is a game-changer in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

“Innovating this process and making enrichment possible on a cheaper, smaller scale means that the technology will be easier to steal and easier to hide,” she says.  “The potential wide-spread risk of nuclear proliferation is a very real threat - the risks and rewards just don’t stack up.”

Their argument is aimed at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a federal  agency that licenses domestic nuclear power plants and enrichment facilities.  The commission is currently reviewing an application that, if approved, would grant a license for a SILEX enrichment plant to be built in North Carolina.  At present, there are no such plants operating in the U.S. or elsewhere.  

“As of now, risk of proliferation is not a criterion used by the NRC in its determination of whether to grant a construction and operating license,” says Cohen, adding that such a policy change would require new legislation from Congress.  However, since Nature’s publication of the opinion piece, Cohen has been invited to meet with NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, and with the Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

“The time to control the technology is now – when only a few, technologically sophisticated countries have the ability to build these enrichment facilities,” says Cohen. “This is a technological problem with complex social, economic, environmental and security implications, and its solution depends on inputs from policymakers, practitioners and academicians.”

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