Is Building A Nuclear Bomb About To Get Way Easier?

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.

French nuclear test in the Pacific (James Vaughan)
French nuclear test in the Pacific (James Vaughan)


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

*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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