The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an anti-nuclear political affairs publication, recently published an attack on a new uranium isotope separation process called SILEX. SILEX, a laser-based process invented in Australia, is being promoted by a joint venture that includes GE-Hitachi and Cameco. They claim it will use far less electricity than centrifuge-based enrichment, which itself uses far less than gaseous diffusion. But, according to BAS, that is a strike against it.
[E]xperts have warned that laser enrichment… would be particularly good at making highly enriched uranium — the ingredient needed to make nuclear weapons — and that a commercial venture could stimulate proliferation.
Anybody familiar with nuclear proliferation would laugh at such a statement. Pakistan developed nuclear weapons in the 1980s based on centrifuge enrichment. It did not do this under cover of a commercial arrangement; the only commercial reactor in the country, a CANDU near Karachi, played no role in Pakistan’s bomb. The country did not wait for laser technology.
South Africa and Argentina also didn’t wait for laser-enrichment to prove itself: they figured out their own methods of separating uranium isotopes. Neither country separated isotopes under the guise of civilian nuclear power; both separation programs were secret military ones.
Three further countries pursued uranium enrichment. These were Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muamar Ghadafi’s Libya, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Saddam built electromagnetic calutrons from declassified open literature; like the programs in the countries mentioned above, Saddam’s was a top-secret military program. Libya and Iran bought centrifuge designs and equipment from a Pakistani entrepreneur who headed up an extensive global black market network. Neither Libya nor Iran made these purchases above board; these programs were also top secret. India also acquired or developed uranium isotope separation capability, possibly as early as some time in the 1960s. Very little is known about how India acquired the technology; it was certainly not by way of any kind of above-board commercial civilian arrangement.
SILEX changes absolutely nothing, other than—possibly, if its proponents are correct—the economics of enrichment.
Its opponents just don’t want to see any improvement in the economics of light water reactor (LWR) nuclear energy.
Here’s how to resolve any proliferation concerns surrounding SILEX. If a SILEX plant opens in any country other than one that already separates isotopes, then make sure the plant is safeguarded and that the host country has acceded to the IAEA’s Additional Protocol.
But that’s standard procedure already, isn’t it.
Nuclear Supplier Group rules already ensure that no other rule-respecting countries than the ones already hosting isotope separation facilities will host the first SILEX plant. So the whole issue is already moot.
As for the countries that don’t respect NSG rules, well they’re beyond our control anyway, aren’t they. If they don’t play by NSG rules, then NSG countries won’t trade with them. If they’re bent on getting a nuclear bomb, chances are they won’t wait around for the latest greatest way to enrich uranium. They’ll use electromagnetic calutrons if they have to. Who cares about the physical footprint—Saddam, with every U.S. spy satellite pointed at Iraq, did exactly that. No one knew until Hans Blix’s weapons inspections teams, scouring Iraq for chemical and biological weapons in the wake of Saddam’s rout in 1991, stumbled across the calutrons.
If a current NPT weapons state should end up hosting a SILEX plant, how is that supposed to increase the threat of proliferation? These countries already have thousands of nuclear weapons!
This is the same non sequitur that underpins the self-ban on reprocessing. U.S. abstinence will have zero effect on an aspiring proliferant’s decisions. Recall the countries I mentioned above: Pakistan, Argentina, India, South Africa, Iraq, Libya, and Iran. All developed or tried to develop nuclear weapons after the U.S.’s self-imposed ban on reprocessing. No proliferant gives a damn what U.S. NSG policy is.
The BAS’s manufactured “concern” over SILEX is all about putting up further obstacles to civilian nuclear energy development. BAS frequently publishes articles on climate change, some of which even pretend to give nuclear power a fair evaluation. But they all dismiss it, in favour of natural gas. For an example, click here.
You can see the entire BAS article here.
Centrifuge enrichment already sets the energy requirement of the enrichment process to a fraction of a percent of the energy produced. Even clunky old diffusion enrichment is less than 5% of the energy produced. SILEX will make little difference to the economics of nuclear power, but will further improve energy efficiency. And isn’t efficiency a good thing?
Exactly, it’s not just good it’s great. When Areva converts Georges Besse, which is currently based on gaseous diffusion, to centrifuge technology, that’ll free up the output of three 950-MW reactors for sale to the French grid. Traveling by TGV will become even cleaner.
But I would still argue that the opposition to SILEX is still opposition to an improvement in the economics of nuclear power. Maybe not at the reactor point, but earlier in the fuel cycle.
I have fond memories of touring the George Besse II site with you. It was fascinating to learn that a centrifuge plant produces approximately as many SWU per year with 55 MWe as a gaseous diffusion plant does with 2700 MWe.
That is the best example of negawatts I have ever seen.
It is too bad that Amory Lovins would not approve of my use of his term for that technology. That fossil fuel promoter hates nuclear, especially when it defies his predictions and becomes more economic than ever.
Great article as usual.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Rod, thanks — yes that tour was a blast. I like your idea of using Georges Besse II as an example of negawatts that is actually meaningful. In Lovins’s hands negawatts is just code for more gas power.