Laser-enriched uranium is the latest war in Ukraine side effect

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Russia’s war in Ukraine is boosting laser enrichment of uranium long seen as a nuclear proliferation threat

Russia’s war on Ukraine is brightening the prospects of a laser technology for making nuclear fuel — one that could help make nuclear power cheaper but could also make it easier for more countries to develop nuclear bombs.

On July 5, the Australian-American firm developing the laser technology announced its latest cooperation agreement, with North Carolina-based Duke Energy, owner of 11 nuclear power plants.

“We seek to address some of the key challenges facing the U.S. nuclear fuel cycle,” said James Dobchuck, president of Global Laser Enrichment. GLE’s statement on the agreement cited Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a key reason for the deal with the former, a major exporter of enriched uranium now facing embargo. It follows a similar agreement made last month with Maryland-based Constellation Energy, owner of 23 nuclear power plants.

Laser enrichment is a classic “dual-use” example of nuclear technology posing both benefits and risks to humanity, said physicist Ryan Snyder, who analyzed the nuclear proliferation risks of laser enrichment while at Princeton University’s national security program. That’s because enriched uranium can serve both as reactor fuel and as a feedstock to make nuclear weapons.

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Classified by the Energy Department in 2001, GLE’s “separation of isotopes by laser excitation” technology covered by the agreements has been long pursued as a cheaper way to create nuclear power plant fuel. Powerful lasers tuned to a particular wavelength collect more radioactive uranium isotopes from a stream of uranium gas in the process. In a 2016 agreement, the Energy Department provided GLE, whose Australian half-owner invented the technology, with depleted uranium to enrich this way for commercial sales as reactor fuel.

But laser enrichment has also been seen as a nuclear proliferation nightmare with the American Physical Society in 2010 petitioning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to block its spread. The worry is that the technique is an easy-to-hide way for rogue states to enrich uranium to the stage before nuclear-bomb-grade material. With smaller facilities and fewer emissions, laser enrichment could offer a simpler clandestine route to start the chain of making bomb-grade uranium.

The conventional ways to enrich nuclear fuel are with high-speed centrifuges or with high-pressure diffusion through filters to separate more radioactive isotopes from corrosive, gasified uranium. Both technologies demand hard-to-disguise factory facilities.

“The concern is that if we move ahead with this technology, knowledge of how it works will inevitably leak worldwide,” said Snyder. “The bottom line is that the cat is out of the bag — it’s known how this technology works in principle — [so] these announcements are more a sign this technology is another problem we face rather than being the problems themselves.”

With nuclear plants in many countries shuttering after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan and plenty of uranium on the market, the commercial prospects for laser enrichment had dimmed. (Iran had paused its pursuit of separate laser enrichment methods in the 2015 nuclear deal torn up by the Trump administration.)

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However, with the February invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which supplies about 20 percent of the world’s uranium, GLE is advancing its roadmap for selling its enriched uranium to 2027, according to a presentation made last month in Montreal. The International Atomic Energy Agency director general suggested earlier this month that 10 to 12 nations may buy new power reactors by 2035.

Observers differed on the risks posed by the acceleration of the technology onto the world science in comments to Grid. Gregory Jackzo, the chief executive officer at Maxean and a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was dubious about laser enrichment being market-ready in this decade, noting a long history of over-optimism technology promises in the nuclear industry. Older technologies might simply be upgraded instead of a new one like laser enrichment being developed, he added, if Russia’s war does cause enriched uranium prices to rise.

“Laser enrichment is not the biggest worry in the nonproliferation world, given all the other problems we face‚” said R. Scott Kemp of the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy. The Ukraine invasion has turned nuclear power plants into combat zones, after all, and Iran has started removing cameras at its nuclear sites in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Kemp said he doubted laser enrichment would ever prove cheaper than conventional ways of enriching uranium — its big selling point.

But that may not hinder its adoption. With laser technology advancing rapidly, said David Keith, an applied physicist and public policy professor at Harvard University, it seems more plausible that laser enrichment will eventually lead to more compact facilities for enriching uranium than the factories full of centrifuges now relied on. “The proliferation risk is real because the footprint could be small,” he said.

Stephen Long, GLE’s chief executive, said the “commercially sensitive” details of the cooperation agreement don’t lock nuclear plants’ operators into either buying laser-enriched uranium or investing in the technology. “However, we are very much aligned in our views that accelerating GLE’s commercialization schedule could benefit both companies and the industry,” said Long.

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While it is likely that Russia is not going to be exporting as much enriched uranium to the world market in the future, nuclear plants are also closing right now without replacements being built, said Snyder. That may keep nuclear fuel markets calm and laser enrichment technology on the back burner of nuclear proliferation worries.

“Proliferation is a demand problem in the big picture,” he said. “If countries didn’t want weapons, we wouldn’t have to worry about this kind of technology.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Dan Vergano
    Dan Vergano

    Science Reporter

    Dan Vergano is a science reporter for Grid.