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April 12, 2010

SILEX laser enrichment technology Has Commercial Test Success While Some Fear SILEX capabilities

The initial phase of the test loop program for the SILEX laser enrichment technology has been successfully completed by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE).
The test loop facility is designed to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of the technology and is intended to advance the design of the equipment and processes for the proposed commercial production facility.
In January 2010, the NRC formally established a 30-month application review schedule. In February, during a public licensing meeting, the NRC indicated they were working to a 30-month schedule which would be completed in December 2011. This means that the commercial facility license could be received as early as January 2012, after which construction of the production plant could proceed.
This site has looked at the technical details of the SILEX enrichment process and compared it to gas centrifuge. The Silex laser uranium enrichment process has been indicated to be an order of magnitude more efficient than existing production techniques but again, the exact figure is classified.
The process is based on selective excitation of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) molecules that contain U-235 by laser light at a narrow spectral line near 16 µm. The CO2 lasers can generate 1 J pulses, but only at a limited repetition rate, and only a fraction of the pulse is in the pump band. Unspecified “additional nonlinear optical tricks” are needed to convert the CO2 pump light to the correct wavelength to pump the Raman cell. The lasers are 1% efficient and the Raman conversion 25% efficient, so the overall efficiency is 0.25%. With many details classified or proprietary, it is hard to quantify the processing. Lyman wrote that if a laser could illuminate a one-liter volume at an ideal repetition rate, it would take about 100 hours to produce one kilogram of U-235-assuming complete separation of the U-235 and U-238 isotopes. However, most processes require multiple stages of separation, and according to Lyman’s comments, a 5000 Hz laser would be needed to process all the feed stream (a mixture of UF6 and an unidentified diluting gas.
Proliferation Fears In the journal Nature, there is an article Stop laser uranium enrichment It is written by Slakey (University of California Economics Prof) and Cohen (Law Professor). They argue that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should prevent GE from building the SILEX commercial plant because the GE plant will perfect laser enrichment and allow others to steal the secrets.

* The mean US household savings from laser enrichment of uranium would probably be less than $2 a month

* The technology could be misappropriated to secretly enrich uranium for weaponry

* The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission should assess proliferation risks in the licensing process

The $3-4 billion per year in savings appears to only be a calculation of the one GE Silex plant. The ultimate savings could be from converting all nuclear enrichment ot Silex processes and the improvement economics could boost the use of nuclear energy. Improved enrichment would also allow economic re-enrichment of depleted uranium (the part that gets thrown away from current enrichment but still has 0.3% of the desirable uranium). The actual opportunity cost of not building SILEX would be far higher and the possible gain would be far less, because I do not think it would slow down the non-US programs that much. An example, is President Jimmy Carter stopped the US from developing reprocessing of Uranium back in the seventies. Yet reprocessing is still done by France, UK, Russia and Japan. The banning of laser enrichment by the USA would be an equally useless gesture. It would only harm the economics of the Unites States nuclear industry. Iran has been and continues to work on developing laser enrichment.

The recommendation does not make sense. Proliferation has already happened in terms of the key knowledge of building the bombs. (AQ Khan - Pakistan in the 1970s). The issue of being able to enrich more efficiently and in a more hideable way is not being addressed but how fast that develops. The Uranium and the Plutonium will be obtained and preventing GE from developing this technology will not alter proliferation. The main aspect of proliferation is the bomb making knowledge. There are many paths that already exist to the nuclear material and technology is increasing the effiency and the options for getting nuclear material.

* more neutron sources (fusion, plasma wakefield accelerators)

* Other cheaper generation of neutrons

* nanotechnology for enrichment

* lasers for enrichment

Entering a New Age of Weapons - Defense Plans Must Adjust Plus there are technologies for increasing the power of nonnuclear weapons. We need to accept that more powerful weapons are going to happen over the next couple of decades and adjust strategic planning. Civil defense needs to be re-invented to have zero soft targets.

There are incremental steps that can reduce the vulnerability of population and buildings by over one hundred times to nuclear weapons, non-nuclear weapons, earthquakes, fires and hurricanes. Simple steps like using hurriquake nails, strengthening walls and construction. Haiti showed the problems of having vastly inferior construction standards. The western world is not at the peak of construction standards, but we look good compared to places like Haiti. In ten years by implementing new standards, future buildings and cities could be as much improved over what exists now as what exists now in the West is better than Haiti.

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