Ever wonder why rogue nations don't have nuclear capabilities yet? Because building atomic weapons has remained an enormously complicated and expensive process. A new laser-based enrichment technique could change all that.
Largely unnoticed, over the past few years a new technique for the enrichment of uranium has been developed – the "Silex" laser-based method. Techniques widely used now are the gaseous diffusion and gas centrifuge techniques.
Developed by Australian scientists, Silex stands for "Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation." Although most details about the method are top secret, what is known is that a CO2 laser is used to irradiate uranium hexafluoride gas, which excites 235UF6 molecules. To produce both civil nuclear power and military warheads, the U-235 isotope in uranium must be beefed up or "enriched."
According to experts, the Silex enrichment method could be 16 times more efficient then the centrifuge technique.
Global Laser Enrichment, a subsidiary of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, is planning to build the first commercial Silex facility in Wilmington, North Carolina. It is awaiting permission from relevant authorities. Global Laser expects to receive the green light some time this year.
Laser enrichment is controversial among experts because it lowers the technical hurdles needed to build atomic weapons and could spur proliferation of weapons-grade material. Because the laser enrichment technique is less elaborate than the centrifuge method it does not require as large a facility – in fact, according to Global Laser Enrichment, a Silex facility takes up 75% less volume than a comparable centrifugal one.
This makes detection of secret facilities by spy satellites a much greater challenge. And because the laser method uses substantially less energy, the thermal clues that can give away the presence of a secret facility are harder to pinpoint.
The lower cost of the Silex method for enriching the uranium used in fuel rods is in itself a huge selling point, says American physicist Francis Slakey of Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He calculates that costs would be halved, which would mean that the average American's monthly electricity bill could be lower by 66 cents assuming that savings were passed on to consumers.
However, professional associations of both American and German physicists have warned of the dangers of unchecked use of the Silex method. Professor Wolfgang Sander, president of the German Physical Society (DPG), said that "the risks tied to the Silex method must be examined more closely. Making the technology to produce nuclear weapons widely available has to be avoided under all circumstances."
Read the full story in German by Norbert Lossau
Photo - James Vaughan