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Will lasers brighten nuclear's future?

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“For 20 years, everyone has been trying to find a good 16-micron laser to do uranium enrichment,” he says. “We know how to do the harvesting [of enriched uranium], now it’s the laser.”

Beyond a few trade reports, little attention has been paid to SILEX development, and there seems scant awareness of it in Congress. The US Department of Energy appears bullish on SILEX’s potential to lower the amount of uranium fuel US nuclear power reactors purchase from overseas firms. “Any increase in domestic enrichment capacity will increase US energy self-reliance,” the DOE said in its statement.

While the State Department was unable to provide an official to speak about SILEX, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is familiar with the technology, having approved the first-step SILEX “test loop” this spring.

SIDEBAR: How SILEX works
If all goes according to plan, sometime in the next few months a powerful infrared laser will fire into a chamber containing uranium hexafloride gas, according to a description of the laser-isotope-separation (LIS) process in a 2001 analysis by a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The beam will excite U-235, the uranium isotope used to make nuclear fission reactions, and enable them to be separated out.
As the gas is cycled through the beam, the process steadily boosts the concentration of U-235. In the end, what precipitates out is a substance with 3 percent or higher U-235 concentration, enough to qualify as fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.
But with minor modifications, such a system could produce the highly enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons. Because of its relatively low power use and compact space requirements, the technology is a threat, says nonproliferation experts.
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