Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Nuclear fuel may get cheaper to make

John Wallace
Senior Editor
Laser Focus World

In a remarkable development, General Electric has licensed a laser-enrichment technology developed by an Australian company called Silex, and has been successfully testing the technology for two years in a joint effort with Hitachi. The purpose of the research, which is being done at a plant in North Carolina co-owned by GE and Hitachi, is to more-easily enrich uranium for use in nuclear powerplants. (A story about this ran in the New York Times on August 20.)
Conventional enrichment approaches, such as the centrifuge-based enrichment that predominates today, are inefficient and must be housed in large, power-hungry facilities. In contrast, laser enrichment promises to be highly efficient and can be done at a much smaller scale.

If it becomes practical, this means two things. First, fuel for nuclear reactors can be made cheaply and in large quantities; this is GE’s and Hitachi’s objective. Second, enrichment facilities could potentially be made small enough to be hidden almost anywhere. The latter naturally leads to a frightening thought: if the technical details of the process ever leaked out, clandestine enrichment facilities could someday be built by terrorists for making nuclear weapons.
It should be noted that the Silex process can be used to enrich other elements too. Silicon, enriched to a higher concentration of one of its isotopes, is more thermally conductive; the same is true of isotopically enriched diamond. More-conductive silicon could spawn faster computers, while better diamond heat spreaders could lead to better high-power laser-diode arrays and more efficient photodetectors.

So here is yet another technology that, like so many, can be used for good or evil. Personally, I am a science nut: from that point of view, the idea of freely available and inexpensive isotopically enriched elements is a great thing, because these new materials should lead to better science and the practical benefits that ensue. I would be very happy if the uranium-enrichment predicament were a nonissue -- but it isn’t. I am wary, and (like most people, no doubt) need to be reassured that the Silex process won’t end up in the hands of the wrong people. Will that reassurance come? We’ll see.

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