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NRC Issues License For Laser Uranium Enrichment Plant

Unknown Lamer posted about 2 years ago | from the lasers-make-everything-better dept.

Shark 34

Six years after being conceived, and after three years of regulatory review, the NRC has issued the operating license for the first commercial SILEX facility. This is just the final step in the multi-year approval process. There is still, however, a chance that the tech won't make it far: concerns over proliferation (due to the much smaller waste stream vs other enrichment processes) may lead to the NRC exercising its right to mothball further commercialization of the technology. Anyone interested in the long approval process should check out the NRC licensing page.

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34 comments

Proliferation isn't a problem... (1, Insightful)

jonwil (467024) | about 2 years ago | (#41452061)

If they are that worried about proliferation from nuclear fuel reprocessing, they could just require the same levels of security on any material that might be usable for a weapon of some sort as they currently do on the 1000s of nuclear warheads that already exist in the USA.

America has been making weapons-grade nuclear material for somewhere near 70 years now so I am sure they know how to keep it safe and out of the hands of the bad guys.

Re:Proliferation isn't a problem... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41452369)

I think they're more worried about the tech being stolen and reproduced. The fear is that with laser enrichment you could have a small scale enrichment operation that could be hidden anywhere. Standard enrichment facilities are nearly impossible to hide because they need a lot of resources, space, special equipment, etc.

Think of trying to hide a large fully functioning factory. Thousands of people work there every day. Trucks come in and out. Need its own roads. Needs its own power lines. Oh, and it's a highly secured military site too so you've got a large military presence too. The types of equipment that go there are also exotic, are large enough to be identified from space. - Not to mention anyone can tell what you're trying to do just by examining the receipts from out-of-country vendors you're buying from. That, and they can probably interview the out of country contractors that came to install it in the first place.

Laser enrichment, on the other hand, might be as small as a single lab that you could squirrel away anywhere where it might blend in. A sub basement in a big city. Anywhere. (Basically, it's a laser and a fan. Vaporize your material and the heavier isotopes float differently than the lighter ones. Add some fancy filtering and repeat until you've got a product of desired enrichment. For whatever reason the laser vaporization works a lot better than turning the uranium in to a highly corrosive gas - Uranium hexafloride.)

Re:Proliferation isn't a problem... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41452497)

Hmmm, they do that with oil... what the hell took them so long to realize they could do that with uranium?

Re:Proliferation isn't a problem... (2)

hubang (692671) | about 2 years ago | (#41452441)

America has been making weapons-grade nuclear material for somewhere near 70 years now so I am sure they know how to keep it safe and out of the hands of the bad guys.

But not 82 year old nuns apparently [globalpost.com]

Re:Proliferation isn't a problem... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41453587)

Clearly we need to be allowed to profile high-risk groups of people for increased security screening. Why, a pissed-off-looking 30-year old Saudi "businessman" gets the same security procedures as an 82-year-old American-born Catholic nun, but your article clearly shows which of these groups is a greater threat to our nuclear facilities.

Those nuns, man. They're the ones you gotta watch.

Re:Proliferation isn't a problem... (1)

WaffleMonster (969671) | about 2 years ago | (#41453629)

You are confusing "enrichment" with "reprocessing".

NRC bombs innovation (2, Interesting)

exabrial (818005) | about 2 years ago | (#41452073)

Nuclear power is incredibly important... in 1000 years, do you really think we're going to power the world with windmills? And while we need a body like the NRC as a safety watchdog, they need to be a lot more efficient. Keeping 60 year old nuclear plants open because new designs take eons to approve is callous and stupid.

And honestly, proliferation should be a NRC concern. Give that to the DHS, they have nothing better to do.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1, Insightful)

h4rr4r (612664) | about 2 years ago | (#41452501)

Why not run reactors that are 60 years old but still safe and putting out needed power?

Just because something is old does not make it bad.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

ZeroSumHappiness (1710320) | about 2 years ago | (#41452695)

Because new designs are orders of magnitude safer and more efficient.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (2)

Andy Dodd (701) | about 2 years ago | (#41452709)

Because they are fundamentally not as safe as modernized designs.

Reference: Fukushima. Newer plants with modernized safety features (such as AP1000 or ESBWR) would have survived the tsunami without damage, as the diesel generators are no longer safety-critical in such designs.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

h4rr4r (612664) | about 2 years ago | (#41452861)

Sure, but the reactors I am talking about are not going to be exposed to a tsunami.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

ZeroSumHappiness (1710320) | about 2 years ago | (#41452947)

They'll be exposed to something. Tornado, earthquake, hurricane. All of the US is threatened by at least one of those. All of those can cut the plant off from the grid and cut the backup generators from the main plant structure.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

zmooc (33175) | about 2 years ago | (#41453691)

The reactors were not really exposed to a tsunami. What caused the problem, was basically a loss of external power plus emergency power for just a bit too long, combined with a loss of cooling water and an emergency cooling system that turned out not to be built to spec.

Also note that even though the plant was not really damaged by the earthquake, all kinds of problems were already occuring due to the emergency shutdown but BEFORE the tsunami struck!

Numerous incidents other than a tsunami could cause similar problems. If they're not solved within a few hours, a meltdown is around the corner.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

Baloroth (2370816) | about 2 years ago | (#41453257)

Why not run reactors that are 60 years old but still safe and putting out needed power?

Just because something is old does not make it bad.

Because the older something is, the more likely it is to break, no matter how much maintenance it has (unless every single component has been replaced, which is unlikely or impossible for a nuclear plant). When that involves, say, a car, it's usually a minor inconvenience for you and maybe a handful of drivers on the highway. At worst, you crash and die and kill 3-4 other people. When it is a nuclear power plant, a breakdown at best causes a major headache as the power grid shuffles to find excess capacity and a few million in repair and inspection costs, and at worst kills hundreds of thousands, sends a country into a panic, and poisons the land for hundreds of miles around for a thousand years.

Hence, as big a fan as I am of nuclear power, I really think we need to shutdown the older plants and build newer, safer, better ones.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41453325)

The argument of course is that they are not really safe.

If I recall correctly, those reactors were designed with a 30-40 year life expectancy. While a good maintenance routine can keep the plant running a long time, there are a lot of parts of these plants that are not designed to be serviceable. While these parts were designed to last longer than the plant and were presumably built to specification, continued bombardment from high energy neutrons is gradually weakening them. By continually extending the operational life of these reactors we are running through our safety margin on the non-serviceable components. One example of a non-serviceable component is the cement foundation of the plant. It forms a critical safety barrier preventing radioactive materials from reaching the water table in the event of an accident. After years of neutron bombardment, it has almost certainly become brittle and porous, significantly reducing its effectiveness.

Of course I am neither a material scientist or nuclear engineer, so take my views with a grain of salt. YMMV

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 2 years ago | (#41452687)

in 1000 years, do you really think we're going to power the world with windmills?

In 1000 years, do you really think we're going to have nation states trying to secretly enrich uranium so they can obliterate their neighbors?

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

cHiphead (17854) | about 2 years ago | (#41453981)

We'll power the world with whatever we can use that offers the best transfer of energy. Probably a hybrid of various technologies, even including a windmill. Why so dismissive right out of the gate?

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

macraig (621737) | about 2 years ago | (#41455345)

In another millennium there wouldn't be any more fissile material left to burn. What, you wanna dig to the core and suck it from there? Yeah, that's a great way to prematurely shorten the habitable lifespan of the planet for future critters.

Re:NRC bombs innovation (1)

evilviper (135110) | about 2 years ago | (#41456151)

in 1000 years, do you really think we're going to power the world with windmills?

Wind can't do it, but solar most certainly can... And solar has innumerable advantages over nuclear, like smaller distributed generation, minimal security concerns, easy scale-up, nominal operating costs, etc. NASA doesn't seem to want to sell me an RTG to power my electric car, but companies are happy to sell me PV panels that'll fit, even if they can only really float-charge the battery pack.

Liquid-sodium solar-thermal power plants appear to be the future, as they eliminate nearly all the problems, lowering initial and ongoing costs, evening-out power generation over days that have little or no sunlight, and being dead-simple technology, using mirrors, soldium, and a turbine.

NRC = Nuclear Regulatory Commission (3, Informative)

jellomizer (103300) | about 2 years ago | (#41452187)

Just in case you somehow don't know every Acronym on the planet.

It must be one of those days I was thinking National Republican Congress.

Re:NRC = Nuclear Regulatory Commission (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41452343)

National Republican Congress

Jeezus, I hope not. They'd never get anything done!

ALRIGHT!!!! (0)

Razgorov Prikazka (1699498) | about 2 years ago | (#41452245)

Bring in the sharks!

Re:ALRIGHT!!!! (1)

Razgorov Prikazka (1699498) | about 2 years ago | (#41452329)

Not?
mutated ill-tempered sea bass wont do!
TFA says it is done with LASERS!
So bring! In! The! SHARKS!

Proliferation? Not a chance. (1)

ackthpt (218170) | about 2 years ago | (#41452375)

The Patent Trolls would see to that.

"You've been served!"

Wait... what?? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41452419)

You mean they DON'T want a more efficient system because it might replace all the systems they already have? Since when was nuclear power about being anti-progress. You carry on with a that stupidity while I figure out how to make my cost effective anti-matter generator. Then we'll see who's so worried about making weapons grade uranium.

Remember the WW2 days when every single factory deployed was refitted to be a factory making weapons, supplies or some other sort of war aid. Didn't we repeat the fact time and time again that this was vital for us lasting in a longer, drawn out war. Why would the NRC not want to embrace the capability of a nuclear power station to produce weapons grade uranium in the event of war, I mean, if we built these things to last 100 years, by then ICBMs may well stop being MAD-class deployments and we may well resort to tactical and smaller nuclear bombs due to the inevitable improvement of Anti-ICBMs, GMD and other anti-missile capability.

Re:Wait... what?? (1)

JSBiff (87824) | about 2 years ago | (#41455723)

I'm not so sure that nuclear weapons lead to long, drawn out wars. We already have enough nukes to basically nuke every square inch of the planet. Do we need to have the ability to make more in a hurry, for some reason?

I mean, with airplanes, and bullets, you expect a lot of attrition - planes get shot down pretty easily, and need to be replaced constantly throughout the war, because each side is basically "picking at the edges" of the enemy's territory.

I wouldn't expect global nuclear war to last more than a couple hours (and that is just while we all watch the radar of the ICBM's crossing 4000 mile distances). . .

If nuclear war breaks out, the best you can do is what they used to teach kids in school - crawl under the desk, bend over, and kiss your ass goodbye.

probably not (1)

nimbius (983462) | about 2 years ago | (#41453037)

America has been making weapons-grade nuclear material for somewhere near 70 years now so I am sure they know how to keep it safe and out of the hands of the bad guys.

we've given nuclear warheads and material to a country that uses state sponsored terrorism [salon.com] and has attacked united states warships in the past. [wikipedia.org] it has not, nor will it ever sign the nuclear non proliferation treaty. [wikipedia.org]
the only difference to recognize here is that at no point is the IAEA going to inspect any US facility.
every INFCIRC [iaea.org] entered for the united states basically confirms that despite our running 'new war every four' policy, we get basically the same rubber-stamp report year after year. The same status is not enjoyed by Iran, whom if the US had their way would be tracking roentgens in the colon of every persian on earth.

Re:probably not (2)

JSBiff (87824) | about 2 years ago | (#41455871)

"The same status is not enjoyed by Iran, whom if the US had their way would be tracking roentgens in the colon of every persian on earth."

Ahh, the old "double standard/hypocrisy" argument. You know what, I've got absolutely no problem with that argument, because the United States and Iran are not the same thing.

The United States is a Republic where the people can vote and change government. No, it's not perfect, but it basically respects human rights, free speech, freedom of religion, equal protection under the law (yes, you can find abuses and scandals where the US hasn't perfectly upheld its ideals, but overall, it's been pretty good).

Iran is a religious and military dictatorship which routinely ignores elections, suppresses free speech, imprisons and kills dissenters, kidnaps foreign nationals near (but not within) their borders, mistreats minorities, etc.

I like that the police/military have different rules than criminals, and at an international level, I like that strong Republics and Democracies have nuclear weapons to defend themselves, and have no problem with having a double standard of not letting dictators and the like have nuclear weapons. Got no problem with that at all.

Re:probably not (1)

magic maverick (2615475) | about 2 years ago | (#41461171)

Actually they are not so dissimilar.

The USA is a place where the people can elect the government. They only really have a choice between two parties, and from the outside they are very similar to each other on most major issues. (e.g. what's the difference between the two on foreign policy? The Republicans say "we are going to bomb you", and they do. The Democrats say "we are not going to bomb you", and they do.) While things like free speech are pretty good, to actually have a chance of reaching people with your speech, you are required to have lots of money.

In Iran, the people can also elect the government. Sure the candidates have to be vetted (but they do in the USA too, just vetted according to different standards -- you know how hard it is to get on the ballot as a third party in some states? impossibly hard), but you do normally have a range. Iran, from the outside, looks like a much more civilized country with regards foreign policy as well. They don't try exert influence outside their region, and haven't had a war since the 1980s (when the USA backed the oppressive Iraqi government in an attempt to get rid of the Iranian government).

As for " kills dissenters", well I'm pretty sure that while the USA doesn't do it that often, there is an awful lot of mistreatment. (Pepper spraying peaceful protesters who are sitting down and not doing anything is a recent example, and if you are willing to go back in time, you can find cases where dissenters were killed.)
"Kidnaps foreign nationals near (but not within) their borders", which is debatable, and still better than kidnapping foreign nationals from various countries and sending them to third countries to be tortured (extraordinary rendition).
"Mistreats minorities", what you mean like the way that non-white people in the USA still statistically are more likely to not be well educated, die earlier etc.? Or the way that in at least one state anyone can be detained until they can prove their citizenship, but it only seems to be hispanics targeted? Or, you know, the whole Jim Crow Laws thing?

Obviously in many ways the USA is far better than Iran. And I would rather live in the USA than Iran (though I would rather live in a third country of my choice than either). But, the USA is not a good country, and it has many problems. And pretending that it doesn't, or that it isn't a hypocritical country, doesn't help anyone. Why not instead fight your government and tell them to stop supporting dictators (Mubarak for over thirty years is a recent example, but there are so many more from around the world), stop interfering in things that don't concern them (almost everything), to open up elections to viable third parties (i.e. fix the really fucked up electoral laws), etc. Make the USA the place that you pretend it is, don't just pretend that it is a great place when it isn't.

Re:probably not (1)

JSBiff (87824) | about 2 years ago | (#41462879)

""Mistreats minorities", what you mean like the way that non-white people in the USA still statistically are more likely to not be"

No, I mean, "We have no problem with Gays in Iran like you do in the West."

In the US, we are not perfect - but we largely acknowledge the problems, and are trying to work to resolve them. The US doesn't have to be perfect, in order for us to acknowledge that it is basically a good actor. Whereas Iran is a whole different story.

You are missing the forest for the trees. Do you really want to see the Ayatollahs and Ahmadinejad with Nukes? I would say that Iran's "reserved foreign policy" right now is a direct result of them not having nukes. As soon as they get Nukes, I expect there is a high probability that they become more belligerent and aggressive towards neighbors.

Re:probably not (1)

magic maverick (2615475) | about 2 years ago | (#41465843)

People in the USA have no problem with LGBTQ people? Haha, good one. Yes there isn't systematic state oppression against gay people like there is in Iran. But Iran has much better treatment of transsexual people, including state sponsered sex change operations (all of this stemming from their crazy ideas about gay people, but still). In the USA (and many other countries), young gay people are still much more likely to be pushed to suicide by peers. A same-sex couple will still have a much harder time with acceptance from their family, the federal government, and most state governments, compared to a male-female couple. So, yes, no systematic state oppression, it's much more cultural and no giving the same rights to couples. It was only 2003 that two gay men could have sex in all of the USA without running afoul of local laws. And only 2011 that openly gay men and women could serve in the US armed forces. And there are still a heck of a lot of people who want to reverse those laws.

You are right, the USA doesn't have to be perfect, but it has to be better before I will say it is good. At most it is not bad. (Though, in this area, Iran is bad. The USA is better. That doesn't mean I can't criticize the USA.)

But, you were trying to paint the two countries as quite different, where I would say they have many similarities.
In my opinion, the USA is worse for the world as a whole, and it would still be the case even if Iran had a couple of nukes. (It might not be so good for Israel, but as I said originally, Iran doesn't really matter outside that region.)

Enrichment keeps getting easier. (2)

Animats (122034) | about 2 years ago | (#41454721)

It's been over 60 years since the first A-bomb. Why doesn't everyone have one? Even third-rate powers have jet fighters.

Building a bomb isn't that hard a job if you have enriched uranium. It's comparable to building an automobile engine - not easy, but a good racing shop could do it. Machining uranium can be done in a standard machine shop [osti.gov] with some extra precautions. (Plutonium is much worse.) Machining beryllium is probably more dangerous. Casting and X-raying the explosive lenses is tough, but it doesn't take a big shop. Generating the 1ns rise time power pulse to fire the explosives is a lot easier than it was in the tube era. Between what the US and the USSR have published, there are few secrets left about low-end bomb design.

Gaseous diffusion plants are huge. Oak Ridge [wikipedia.org] Novouralsk. [google.com] Drome, France [google.com] . Those things are the size of big steel mills. Entire "nuclear cities" were built around them. Only major countries could afford them.

Then came centrifuge plants. Here's one in the US. URENCO USA. [google.com] It looks like a big data center, just some big commercial buildings and a parking lot. It's on the outskirts of a town in New Mexico, along with some other unrelated industries. Any reasonably successful country, or even a big company, can afford a centrifuge plant. URENCO is on their third generation of centrifuges, and price/performance improves with each generation. Now countries like India and Pakistan were able to get into the game.

Laser enrichment will reduce the scale even further. Lawerence Livermore had laser enrichment working in the 1990s, but it wasn't cost-effective. Now it is. A laser enrichment plant is a modest operation, perhaps a quarter of the size of a centrifuge plant of the same capacity.

All these processes are multi-stage, with each stage doing some separation and feeding a slightly more concentrated product into the next state. The minimum plant size before you get anything is still reasonably big.

There's work going on towards single-stage laser separation systems. That's a worry, because a very small plant, over time, could enrich enough uranium for a bomb. So far, if anyone knows how to make that work, they're not saying much. But eventually it will be figured out.

Re:Enrichment keeps getting easier. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41455011)

Handy thing about plutonium is that it's produced by irradiating non-enriched uranium, and is much easier to seperate chemically.

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