Australian laser ‘threatens nuclear security’
Posted by Xeno on April 13, 2010
Dr Francis Slakey, from Georgetown University in Washington DC, says a revolutionary uranium enrichment process using lasers has the potential to make it much easier for rogue countries or terrorist organisations to conceal any nuclear program.
In scientific circles the process is called ‘separation of isotopes by laser excitation’, or SILEX, for short. It is a way of enriching uranium using pulsed lasers that was invented by two Australian scientists – Dr Michael Goldsworthy and Dr Horst Struve – at Lucas Heights in Sydney.
The pair won an award for it and a grant from the Federal Government.
Dr Slakey admires their achievement.
“It’s a significant advance from a physics point of view because they were able to accomplish what 20 other countries were unable to,” he said.
But he is worried about the threat SILEX poses to global nuclear security.
Under a deal with the US in 1998, development of the technology was transferred to the United States and in 2001 SILEX was classified.
Now General Electric Hitachi wants a licence from US regulators to build the world’s first SILEX plant in North Carolina.
Dr Slakey says that cannot be allowed because it is too dangerous.
“From everything I’ve heard about this plant, it’s too risky to proceed,” he said.
Dr Slakey says laser enrichment is dangerous because it is almost undetectable.
The SILEX process is 75 per cent smaller than current enrichment technologies, drawing no more electricity than a dozen homes.
“This next generation technology is so efficient and so small that we would no longer be able to see it with our satellites and we would no longer be able to detect whether there was some power source going into it, because it uses so little power,” he said.
And with US president Barack Obama convening his nuclear security summit in Washington, Dr Slakey says regulators must take into account proliferation risks before licensing new technologies. …