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Letter to the NRC on Laser Enrichment Technology

LETTER TO THE U.S. NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION

Preparation of Nuclear Proliferation Assessment on Laser Enrichment Technology Essential
to Sound U.S. Nonproliferation Policy

Commissioner Allison M. Macfarlane, Chairman
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555-0001

August 28, 2012

 

Dear Chairman Macfarlane,

We are writing to you as organizations and experts concerned with nuclear nonproliferation policy to express grave concern that licensing technology for laser enrichment of uranium poses a serious threat to our security.  We request an adequate Nuclear Proliferation Assessment before a licensing decision is made by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the newly developed laser technology for enrichment of uranium.

As you know, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now considering issuance of a license to GE-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment LLC for operation of a large-scale laser enrichment facility based on SILEX (separation of isotopes by laser excitation).  Before a final determination is made on issuance of that license, we strongly urge the Commission to require preparation of a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment on this new technology as it holds potential proliferation risks.  Your decision on this matter is not simply a licensing decision but is of great importance to overall U.S. non-proliferation policy.

The NRC itself, in a 2008 manual on enrichment technology from the USNRC Technical Training Center, stated that laser enrichment presents “extra proliferation concerns due to the small size and high separation factors.”  And, various experts have determined that laser enrichment poses a risk that needs to be assessed.  These views were succinctly summarized in a July 30, 2012 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article titled “SILEX and proliferation,”[1] by Dr. R. Scott Kemp, assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he stated that “SILEX is a new enrichment technology that happens to be well suited for making nuclear weapons. The benefits of commercializing SILEX are not yet established, but the proliferation risks are significant.”

Though the NRC is on record as stating that the National Environmental Policy Act does not require preparation of a proliferation assessment,[2] the Congressional Research Service determined in a March 27, 2012 memorandum[3] that the Commission has legal authority “to promulgate a regulation requiring that applicants provide the commission with a proliferation risk assessment as part of the license application process.”

Most importantly, it is the statutory responsibility of the Commission to assess proliferation threats associated with technologies it regulates.  Section 602 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 states that the NRC “shall also include views and recommendations regarding the policies and actions of the United States to prevent proliferation which are the statutory responsibility” of the agency.  Likewise, the Atomic Energy Act stipulates that “the Commission shall prescribe such regulations or orders as may be necessary or desirable to promote the Nation's common defense and security with regard to control, ownership, or possession of any equipment or device, or important component part especially designed for such equipment or device, capable of separating the isotopes of uranium or enriching uranium in the isotope 235.”

While the NRC could complete and evaluate a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment before making a determination in the singular case of laser technology, we also support the Commission’s approval of the petition of November 18, 2010 by Dr. Francis Slakey of the American Physical Society which requests “that the NRC amend its regulations regarding the domestic licensing of special nuclear material to include proliferation assessments as part of the licensing process.”  Many of the signatories of this letter are already on record with the NRC in support of that petition. For further information about this letter or to contact any of the signers, please contact Alfred Meyer, 202-215-8208, alfred.c.meyer@gmail.com

The pursuit of sound, consistent and effective U.S. nonproliferation policies is an important role of the Commission.  We believe that it is clear what action you must take on behalf of the entire U.S. Government in this matter.  Your requirement for the preparation of an adequate Nuclear Proliferation Assessment will not only strengthen U.S. nonproliferation policies but also garner widespread support for the Commission’s work in promoting “the Nation's common defense and security.” 

Sincerely,

Catherine Thomasson, MD, Executive Director
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Frank N. von Hippel, Professor of Public and International Affairs
Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Former Assistant Director for National Security, White House Office for Science and Technology Policy (1993-94)
Co-chair, International Panel on Fissile Materials

Christopher Paine, Nuclear Program Director
Natural Resources Defense Council

Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director
Arms Control Association

Charles D. Ferguson* President
Federation of American Scientists

Peter Bradford, Adjunct Professor
Vermont Law School
Former commissioner, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Alan J. Kuperman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs
Coordinator, Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project
University of Texas at Austin

Leonard S. Spector* Executive Director, Washington, DC Office
James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Monterey Institute of International Studies

Ira Helfand, MD, Co-President
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

James Acton, Ph.D.* Senior Associate
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Paul Ingram, Executive Director
British American Security Information Council

David Culp, Legislative Representative
Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers)

Jeffery Patterson, DO, President Elect
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Jim Walsh, Ph.D.*
Security Studies Program
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tom Clements, Non Proliferation Policy Director
Alliance for Nuclear Accountability

Harold A. Feiveson, Ph.D.
Program on Science and Global Security
Princeton University

Miles A. Pomper*  Senior Research Associate
James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Monterey Institute of International Studies

Paul F. Walker, Ph.D., Director, Environmental Security & Sustainability
Green Cross International & Global Green USA

Susan Shaer, Executive Director
Women's Action for New Directions

* Indicates institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only

cc:  Commissioners Magwood, Svinicki, Apostolakis and Ostendorff

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

RELEVANT LINKS:

Francis Slakey, November 10, 2010, Petition to NRC for Rulemaking

Op-Ed by Francis Slakey,  March 2, 2011, The Hill, “Why we need to keep nuclear facilities in plain sight

Article by William Broad, August 20, 2011, The New York Times, “Laser Advances in Nuclear Fuel Stir Terror Fear”:

Article by Elaine Grossman, May 24, 2012, Global Security Newswire, “Closely Held Report Discounts Proliferation Risk of Lasers for Making Nuclear Fuel

Article by R. Scott Kemp, July 30, 2012, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,  “SILEX and Proliferation



[1] R. Scott Kemp, “Silex and proliferation,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, July 30, 2012,

http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/silex-and-proliferation

[2] Nuclear Regulatory Commission, letter to Friends of the Earth, March 15, 2010, http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1003/ML100321787.pdf

[3] Congressional Research Service memorandum to Representative Jeff Fortenberry, March 27, 2012,

http://www.princeton.edu/~rskemp/CRS-opinion-on-NRC-authority.pdf