A physics story makes the front page of the New York Times today. Sadly, it’s with the headline Laser Advances in Nuclear Fuel Stir Terror Fear. Sigh.

The key technological development, here, is that General Electric has been playing around with a laser-based isotope separation technique. This is an idea that’s been around for a long time, with lots of different people working on it. GE’s technology is based on an idea from some Australians back in the 1990′s, and they appear to think they can scale it up to industrial scale. Predictably enough, there’s a stark difference of opinion about the greater meaning of all this:

Backers of the laser plan call those fears unwarranted and praise the technology as a windfall for a world increasingly leery of fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases.

But critics want a detailed risk assessment. Recently, they petitioned Washington for a formal evaluation of whether the laser initiative could backfire and speed the global spread of nuclear arms.

“We’re on the verge of a new route to the bomb,” said Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist who advised President Bill Clinton and now teaches at Princeton. “We should have learned enough by now to do an assessment before we let this kind of thing out.”

I’m temperamentally inclined toward thinking that this is a net positive, largely because I think the idea that this is something that needs official permission to be “let out” is hopelessly naive. Laser technology gets better and cheaper every year, and really smart people have been thinking about applying lasers to nuclear fuel processing for fifty years. I don’t really believe that a handful of Aussies are sufficiently brilliant that nobody else will ever work this method out, or that we can control laser technology tightly enough that nobody else will ever get the parts to do the job.

And if there’s any role at all for fission in fighting global warming– which, I realize, a lot of people think there isn’t– this sort of technology could be a key piece. In which case, refusing to “let it out” is kind of irresponsible.

Rather than focusing on the Bad Things that might be done with this, and trying to keep the technology under wraps, I’d like to see more of an effort on the demand side of the nuclear weapons market– that is, working to reduce the number of people who are crazy and angry enough to want to blow things up with nuclear weapons. Which, I realize, brands me as some sort of radical lefty type, but there you are.

Comments

  1. #1 Joe Thorpe
    August 21, 2011

    Positive if low prices for fuel mean that subcritical reactors (which require additional neutron beams to create chain reactions) become common.

  2. #2 Vince whirlwind
    August 21, 2011

    Don’t you go misunderestimating we Aussies and how brilliant we are…

  3. #3 Birger Johansson
    August 22, 2011

    Even if fuel gets cheaper conventional reactors are appallingly expensive to build. You need more than one breakthrough.

  4. #4 Brian H
    August 22, 2011

    Maybe I’m missing something, but this really doesn’t seem like an “easier” method at all. At least in the sense that if dictator X has the technical ability to do laser enrichment well, then said dictator is extremely likely to have already mastered one of the lower-tech routes to enrichment anyway. The claim that it could make enrichment “10 times cheeper” doesn’t imply “10 times easier.”

    Am I missing something obvious?

  5. #5 thecynic
    August 22, 2011

    An easier way to make fuel for an emissions-free (assuming the waste is properly disposed of), cheaper, and safer way to make energy.

    The nuclear genie is as much a creature of peace as it is of war; perhaps potentially even far more the former than the latter.

    Nobody, no matter how crazy, wants to be responsible for total global annihilation. Even if some crazy dictator or terrorist gets the bomb, they will be unlikely to have enough nuclear firepower to do an apocalyptic level of damage.

    The bomb has ensured that another world war between super powers will never take place–the threat of mutually assured total destruction forces even the bitterest of enemies to cooperate.

  6. #6 Hugh
    August 31, 2011

    Silex is the most highly-classified civilian technology. If that combination of terms seems like it must be an oxymoron, consider that this is enrichment technology, where the rules are different. It’s really naive to say we’re “letting it out.”

    If I bothered to look, I’d probably find that Von Hippel is making a moral suasion argument with respect to this. That is, if the US doesn’t do something like laser enrichment or civilian reprocessing, then the argument goes that other countries that perhaps want nuclear weapons will be persuaded to not do that same thing in pursuit of their own nuclear program. That argument – typical in the non-proliferation community – is simply a non sequitur.

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