2013/03/10

Uranium Enrichment, Moral Impoverishment

The latest uranium enrichment method using lasers:
cheaper, smaller, less energy intensive
One of the less examined aspects of the nuclear debate is the enrichment process. Blogs and editorials make frequent mention of the famous disasters, the health effects or radiation, regulatory lapses and the risks of mining uranium and operating nuclear plants. However, a crucial, overlooked step in the process is enrichment, and it is a step where the civilian and military uses of uranium intersect and become indistinguishable. Nuclear security and economic advantage are blended together as powerful nations vie for where enrichment will happen, how it will happen, and who is allowed to do it.
One thing that mitigated the dangers of the nuclear age was the fact that making a nuclear weapon was a massive industrial enterprise. Few countries had the resources for it, and those that tried to make nuclear weapons could not conceal their intention.
The Manhattan Project of the early 1940s required scientific and engineering expertise, a large workforce, access to the raw materials, and electricity supplies equal to what lit up New York City at the time. It was the lack of all these prerequisites that made it impossible for the USSR, Japan and Germany to produce nuclear weapons during WWII. After worrying that the enemy might get the bomb first, people running the Manhattan Project quickly realized the enormous scale of the project. They knew at that time that no country but the U.S. had the capacity to build a bomb. If Germany or Japan had tried to set up the required gigantic enrichment facility, it could have been found easily and destroyed in an air raid. The Soviets were set back by having had massive losses on their own territories. This implies that the US could have called off the Manhattan Project at this time, if the true concern had been that WWII enemies would get the bomb first. However, there were obvious reasons to develop this new weapon for the post-war world that was coming into view.
Since the UN and nations of the world applauded themselves for signing the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, they have all done a good job of not mentioning that the gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment process was exempted from the agreement. Internet searches for exemptions to the protocol turn up some for asthma inhalers and other uses that account for trivial amounts, but there is no mention of the large consumption of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) used in uranium enrichment since 1987 at the USEC facility in Paducah, Kentucky. It seems to have been tactfully left unmentioned in UN documents that were meant to tout the victory and not allow the public to question the judgment that nuclear was clean and green enough to be given a pass on its ozone depleting emissions. Although no one wanted to draw attention to the exemptions, CFC pollution by the nuclear industry has long been an open secret, and it is not denied by the polluters themselves.
The additional problem with CFCs is that, as well as being ozone depleters, they are said to trap heat 10,000 to 20,000 times more effectively than CO2. Thus the global warming impact of nuclear energy (mining, processing, construction of plants, cooling of fuel, decommissioning of plants, decontamination, transport and storage of waste) takes a huge increase when we consider the energy used to run the cooling systems and the impact of coolant leaks. 
Because of the Montreal Protocol and the desire to portray nuclear as green and carbon free, the nuclear industry has been highly motivated to reduce the energy and CFC inputs required to enrich uranium. In addition, there would be tremendous cost advantages to any nation that could secure a less energy intensive way of enriching uranium.
The gaseous diffusion method was Cold War technology that was finally headed for phase out in the early 21st century. It was overtaken by the less wasteful method of using centrifuges, but since the 1960s, the holy grail of enrichment technology has been to use lasers to separate the valuable U-235 isotope from other uranium isotopes. This technology has become viable in the last decade, and in September 2012, GE Hitachi finally won approval to operate a laser enrichment facility in North Carolina, but this has come with some very anxious concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation. Just as a gaseous diffusion plant in Nazi Germany would have been easy to find and bombard, enrichment facilities have always been relatively easy to detect. This will no longer be the case if laser enrichment technology becomes widespread.
The US government is confident that its laser secrets, shared with GE Hitachi, are safe, but there is no guarantee that this situation will last. If the secrets are not stolen, they could be rediscovered independently. A criticism quoted in a New York Times article was “the demonstration of a new technology often begets a burst of emulation because the advance opens a new window on what is possible.”
Within the reports that mention this new laser technology, proponents of it make no mention of the wasteful CFC and energy consumption of the old enrichment technologies. They merely use words like “more efficient” and “less costly.” To speak of the carbon footprint of the old methods would be to admit that all along nuclear energy wasn’t as clean and green as was advertised.
The US government seems willing to take the proliferation risk in this case in order to make nuclear greener, but it also seems to want this as a way of cornering the market in enriched uranium fuel production. A strategic interest in controlling proliferation risks is also obvious. If the laser method is 70-80% cheaper (as claimed in this report by The Center for Strategic and International Studies), and the US can justify not sharing the secrets of laser technology (because of the proliferation risk), then it has the potential to become the sole supplier for the dozens of new reactors being built in China and India, as well as for existing nuclear power plants. By gaining exclusive control of this technology, the US gains both geopolitical and economic advantage, but at considerable risk that the exclusivity might not last. However, the CSIS report cautions that even the large cost reduction may not be enough to make energy companies switch suppliers. The biggest cost of nuclear remains the cost of building and operating power plants. If this is true, the political support for laser enrichment might be rooted more in the lobbying efforts of GE Hitachi.
This sheds light on why Barack Obama pivoted to a strongly pro-nuclear stance once he was elected. In 2008, during the campaign, he said the NRC was a “moribund agency” that was “captive of the industries it regulates” (Gar Smith, p. 137). After the election, the Obama administration became firmly pro-nuclear, offering loan guarantees of billions of dollars for projects that can’t obtain financing without a promise of government bailout if things go wrong. And GE Hitachi has also had its hand out for loan guarantees for the new enrichment facility. Just in case something happens to turn global opinion against nuclear (what could possibly go wrong?), all nuclear ventures these days want government to provide loan guarantees and liability insurance.
Since Obama came to power, there has been no reform of the “moribund” NRC, and no enforced closures of aging nuclear plants that are plagued with safety issues. Some utilities have announced the shutdown of aging, troubled reactors, but these have occurred because the facilities were no longer financially viable.
The strong commitment to laser enrichment is, to say the least, a strong disincentive for the US government to reduce dependence on nuclear energy. It is committed to extending licenses on aging reactors and expanding the industry, even when they are financially unsound. The financial incentive to profit from laser uranium enrichment makes the US promote nuclear expansion abroad, yet the promotion of nuclear energy abroad wouldn't be taken seriously if the US had a domestic policy of reducing reliance on nuclear. Thus the commitment to enrichment reinforces the commitment to nuclear power plants, and vice versa, no matter how costly and dangerous it becomes to operate its fleet of troubled reactors.
After the Fukushima disaster, the US government joined the Japanese government in playing down the implications, and was alarmed when the Japanese government indicated that it might withdraw from nuclear entirely. The promotion of a global expansion of nuclear energy provides more reasons to add to the list of complaints that the satirical Final Edition listed in their article Nobel Committee Asks Obama “Nicely” To Return Peace Prize. A Nobel Peace Prize should not belong to a leader who wants to increase weapons proliferation risks and add to the stockpiles of nuclear waste for which there is still no disposal solution.

Sources and Further Reading:

Arjun Makhijani, Lois Chalmers, Brice Smith, Uranium Enrichment: Just Plain Facts to Fuel an Informed Debate on Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Power, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, (October, 2004).

Christopher Donville. “GE, Hitachi to Seek Guarantees for Nuclear Project,” Bloomberg. June 30, 2009. 

Gar Smith, Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), p. 137. 

International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, United Nations. 

Matthew Fargo. “The Commercialization of Uranium Enrichment,” The Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 17, 2012.

Norm De Pleume, “Nobel Committee Asks Obama “Nicely” To Return Peace Prize,” The Final Edition, (2011).

Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, USEC.

Uranium Plant Using Laser Technology Wins U.S. Approval, Associated Press, (September 27, 2012).

William J. Broad, “Laser Advances in Nuclear Fuel Stir Terror Fear,” The New York Times, (August 20, 2011).

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