RALEIGH, N.C.—A nuclear power partnership of General Electric Co. and Tokyo-based Hitachi Ltd. received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the first plant to enrich uranium for use in commercial reactors using a classified laser technology instead of expensive centrifuges.
Nuclear weapons control advocates fear that allowing companies to use the cheaper and easier technology could increase the risk it falls into the wrong hands.
“We think the approval of the license was done without due consideration of proliferation,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the global security program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re already grappling with how to cope with Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability” and the laser technology “could make the problem of global proliferation intractable and uncontrollable.”
General Electric-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment LLC said it hasn’t yet decided whether the project will be profitable enough to launch construction of the $1 billion plant. Part of the evaluation will be weighing markets for enriched uranium years into the future.
But the company assured its hold on the classified technology proposed by the Australian company Silex Systems is secure.
The NRC license allows GE Hitachi to enrich uranium to 8 per cent by weight. Uranium is enriched to 90 per cent purity to build atomic bombs.
The technology could enhance America’s energy security because a majority of enriched uranium made to fuel the country’s 104 operating nuclear reactors comes from foreign or government-aided sources, the company said.
“It could provide a steady supply of uranium enriched right here in the U.S. to the country’s nuclear reactors,” Global Laser Enrichment CEO Chris Monetta said. “These reactors provide approximately 20 per cent of the nation’s electricity today and will continue to be an important part of the energy mix for decades to come.”
The NRC said it would conduct inspections during the plant’s construction and operation and hold a public meeting in Wilmington, N.C. to explain its oversight plans before construction begins.