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.