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Will lasers brighten nuclear's future?

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Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, is worried about SILEX too. “If it works, it has enormous industrial implications with the US perhaps bringing back all the enrichment services it has lost to Europe and Russia,” he says.

“But how long can you keep this process secret and out of the hands of proliferators? That’s the real question.”

The US Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear power, is not worried.

“Any program to build additional enrichment facilities in the United States will be evaluated for its safety, environmental, and nonproliferation characteristics before it is licensed to operate,” the DOE said in a statement responding to Monitor queries.

Still, SILEX’s success is hardly guaranteed. Laser isotope separation, or “laser enrichment,” is not new. It has a reputation as a fiendishly difficult technology that has defied researchers for decades. Most of the 18 countries that once pursued it have given up.

Jeffrey Eerkens, a laser expert in northern California, is one of the few researchers familiar with many aspects of the SILEX technology. One of the key hurdles has always involved the infrared laser, he says.

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