Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on General Electric’s successful attempt at using laser enrichment to create nuclear fuel. They now seek support for a $1 billion facility that would cover 100 acres in Wilmington, NC. At the same time as they herald this “break-through” and its ability to simplify uranium enrichment, they also claim that this would not make the path to a nuclear bomb easier. Ridiculous.
Our current firewall against a world filled with nuclear capable countries and groups is the scarcity of nuclear fuel. While it’s difficult to hide an enrichment facility using massive centrifuges, laser enrichment offers the promise of smaller scale facilities that require less space and resources. As much difficulty as the international community is having in pushing back Iran’s nuclear ambitions - we would have been completely caught off guard had they been able to hide their nuclear facilities from the IAEA and the United States. Even worse is the potential for a terrorist organization being able to develop this type of facility covertly.
Industry may claim it has no intentions of proliferation, but the very act of introducing a new sort of technology that can be used for bomb-making can have devastating consequences. AQ Khan stole enrichment designs from his employers at URENCO, and created a cottage-industry of selling nuclear secrets and technology. We are still reaping the proliferation consequences of his decision decades ago.
This new development is an unwelcome herald of a world of easy access to nuclear weapons. The least our government can do is conduct a thorough risk assessment of this new technology with an eye towards the fearsome proliferation potential.