There’s a minor dustup in the works over a nuclear enrichment technology recently approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Last week the agency approved a license for a Hitachi GE technology called SILEX – Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation. The plant would be constructed in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the underlying technology could make uranium enrichment cost just thirty percent of the expense of gas centrifuges. And apparently that dramatic cost savings has a downside – more entities can get their hands on/make their own enriched uranium. If this technology is also much smaller (or can be done on a smaller scale) than other technologies in use, it will be harder to detect.
The initial license application in 2009 prompted a discussion about whether the NRC has done its job in assessing the proliferation risks of the plants and technologies that it licenses. It prompted the American Physical Society to petition the NRC to make formal proliferation reviews part of its licensing process. Nature has gone so far as to encourage the NRC to approve the petition.
Now, there is plenty to debate and discuss about whether the NRC has the authority to do this (rather than the Departments of State and Energy), but there is a more fundamental set of questions, one not limited to nuclear technologies.
How can you assess the proliferation risks of a technology? It seems to be such a moving target. It’s hard to keep new scientific and technical knowledge on lockdown, particularly in areas where weapons technologies have significant non-lethal applications. Proliferation seems pretty contextual – the condition of the states and entities that might use this technology for weapons is highly variable. Not that you can ever really sever value judgements from technical assessments, but it seems impossible to do so in this instance. So even a ‘technical’ agency like the NRC could not help but avoid political and other value judgments in a proliferation review. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s an unfortunate tendency to use science and technology to hide these judgements.
Regardless, you have a situation now where scientific institutions – one a society and one a journal, are calling for restrictions on science and technology work. That rarely happens.