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Uranium enrichment possibility at GE-Hitachi in Castle Hayne worries some nuclear scientists

General Electric

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will decide by August whether to grant a 40-year license allowing GE-Hitachi to enrich uranium at a new facility in Castle Hayne.If the project moves forward, the uranium enrichment plant will use a ground-breaking technology called Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation -- or SILEX.  The GE-Hitachi facility would be the first of its kind in the world to enrich uranium using lasers.  But as WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn reports, some nuclear scientists are deeply concerned about the proposed plant’s potential contribution to global nuclear proliferation.

His was the lone voice at a recent public meeting at UNCW’s Burney Center, when scientists from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission presented their final Safety Evaluation Report and Environmental Impact Statement. 

“Yes, my name is Tom Clements and I’m with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability… I first became concerned and interested in the SILEX technology over a decade ago when I was the Director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.”

His fear:  that if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives the green light to laser uranium enrichment plans, and GE-Hitachi decides to build and operate the facility, the possibility of nuclear weapons technology getting into the hands of rogue countries is much greater.  While Tom Clements was the only person expressing those anxieties at the May meeting in Wilmington, he’s far from alone in his misgivings about this technology. 

Dr. Scott Kemp, an associate research scholar in Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, agrees. 

“There are many countries out there that would love to know the secrets about how to do this because they’d love to have the technology – if not for commercial purposes then for proliferation purposes.” 

Dr. Kemp says at least 15 countries have explored related laser enrichment technology in the past. 

"And we know there are many more who are watching this program carefully.” 

That fact is worrisome, says Kemp, because the technology itself is highly conducive to the rapid and clandestine production of nuclear weapons. 

GE-Hitachi spokesman Christopher White says the fact that other countries are after this information is not a surprise to anyone. 

“Where it becomes difficult is actually obtaining the technologies.  You know, most of the actual technology in the enrichment process is classified secret with the United States’ and Australian governments – which makes it incredibly difficult to share.  We have to have certain safeguards in place.  And this is not a technology that you could put in the trunk of your car and drive away with.” 

White also points out that the company had an independent panel of some of the foremost proliferation experts in the world analyze the risk of the technology getting into the wrong hands. 

“Every source, every expert that has actually seen all of the data has said that this would be no more likely to be proliferated than current technologies.  So we’re very comfortable with that.” 

But Princeton’s Dr. Kemp and anti-proliferation expert Tom Clements both question the objectivity of that risk assessment.  Clements argues the company shouldn’t be conducting its own risk analysis.

“They should be something that’s done by outside experts who can, in an unbiased manner, assess the risk.” 

GE’s Christopher White says that’s exactly what was done. 

“The independent assessment that was done was not done internally.  It was not done by GE-Hitachi individuals.  It was done by some of the foremost proliferation experts in the world.  And they found that we are actually going above and beyond the requirements of the Department of Energy and others to make sure that this is not proliferated.” 

The American Physical Society, a group of concerned scientists, is asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to change its licensing process.  The group wants the NRC to conduct a proliferation risk assessment before it grants any license. 

David McIntyre, public affairs officer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville, MD says while the NRC doesn’t call it a proliferation risk assessment, the licensing process essentially accomplishes that end. 

“A lot of our review is centered on the security of the information and the technology.  So our basic licensing review looks at how GE-Hitachi would be protecting classified information, classified technology, who would have access to the information, and other things like that, in effect, fulfill a nonproliferation role.” 

But scientists with the American Physical Society call that process insufficient.  

The NRC’s McIntyre had no comment on recent security violations at GE’s existing plant for which the company was fined $45,000.  In its heavily redacted report, the NRC cites a significant lack of management attention.  But GE’s Christopher White says the very fact of the report and the resulting fines point to the robustness of both GE’s and the NRC’s process. 

“The violations that occurred were identified by GE very quickly, corrected very quickly, and the NRC themselves said this had no impact on the security of the technology or of the program.”

While anti-proliferation expert Tom Clements says the issue is really within the purview of the Federal Government, Princeton’s Dr. Kemp suggests this could be an opportunity for residents in the Greater Wilmington Area.  Members of the community could, he says, share some culpability if this technology is one day used to make nuclear weapons – especially if the country making those weapons is an enemy to the U.S. 

“And how are the people in Wilmington, North Carolina going to cope with the fact that once this plant is up and running, many countries are going to have their spies basically operating in the city trying to elicit information from people who work at the plant to understand the technology?” 

Again, GE’s Christopher White: 

“We have a very high expectation that we would be able to keep this secret and keep it at the appropriate classification and be able to protect it or we wouldn’t proceed with it.” 

But Dr. Kemp wonders why people are willing to take the risk. 

“We want to make sure that if this plant goes forward, that it has a real reason to exist and that the benefits it has for the American public are significant enough to outweigh the complications the technology might introduce for international relations and stability.”