VIENNA - A new way of making nuclear fuel with lasers may help cut costs and ensure energy security but could also make it easier for rogue states to secretly build nuclear weapons if they got hold of the know-how.
Iran, whose underground centrifuge plants and history of hiding nuclear work from UN inspectors have raised Western suspicions of a covert atom bomb program and prompted Israeli threats to attack Iranian nuclear sites, says it already has laser technology but experts doubt Tehran has mastered it.
Uranium can provide the explosive core of a nuclear warhead if refined to a high fissile concentration, explaining why any country or other actor interested in obtaining nuclear arms might be eager to learn about technical advances in enrichment.
Some nuclear proliferation experts worry that plants enriching uranium with lasers could be smaller - and therefore even harder to discover - than the traditional facilities with rows and rows of centrifuge machines.
Lasers could also refine fuel-grade uranium to possible weapons grade in fewer steps than centrifuges, they say.
Those features could make laser enrichment an attractive option for any state wanting to develop covertly the capability to produce nuclear weapons, which the West is accusing Iran of doing with its centrifuge-based program.
"The smaller physical footprint and lower energy requirements would make a clandestine laser facility more difficult to detect," said Jim Walsh, a research associate at MIT's Security Studies Program.
Tehran - which only disclosed the existence of its Fordow subterranean
centrifuge site in 2009 after learning that Western spy services had
spotted it - denies any nuclear bomb designs.
But Olli Heinonen, a former UN chief nuclear inspector, says that embarking on laser enrichment for energy purposes in the United States would probably not cause the technology to spread elsewhere.
"Technology holders have been fairly good in recent years in protecting their secrets. Proliferation mainly took in place in the 1970s and 1980s due to poor export controls and legislation," said Heinonen, now at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
His former employer, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has tried in vain to get more information about a 2010 statement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Tehran "possessed" laser enrichment technology but would not use it.
"Iran had its own laser program, and they have got a good understanding about the process," Heinonen said, referring to methods used before newer technology now being developed or energy purposes.
But laser enrichment is more difficult to master than centrifuges and the equipment used in Iran's research has been dismantled and placed in storage under IAEA monitoring, said the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank.
"Based on the IAEA assessment it appears unlikely that Iran's laser enrichment program represents a serious proliferation threat," IISS said in a 2011 report.
Laser technology still not perfected
Centrifuges increase the ratio of the fissile isotope U-235 by spinning at supersonic speed, enriching up to 5 percent for power plants and 90 percent concentration for bombs.
Laser beams can also separate uranium isotopes, but MIT's Kemp said the technology had been pursued unsuccessfully for decades. "Indeed we do not yet know whether" the technique being developed by General Electric will work or not, he added.
General Electric said Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) - the GE-Hitachi company which would build a plant utilizing the new laser technology in North Carolina - had "met - and in many cases exceeded - all regulations pertaining to safeguarding this technology."
GLE head Chris Monetta said the laser method "could be one of the keys to the nation's long-term energy security."
Laser enrichment could produce half the refined uranium the United States needs each year for its nuclear reactors, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
But Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a non-governmental US-based group, said such advantages also held nuclear proliferation risks.
The NRC's approval of the license without a specific proliferation assessment "may well be a green light for the eventual spread of what could be a dangerous technology which has nuclear weapons applications," Clements said.