RALEIGH – Will research currently underway in North Carolina revolutionize the nuclear-power industry and increase the risk of nuclear-arms proliferation?
According to a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, that’s what some are saying about experimentation at a GE-Hitachi facility in Wilmington with laser-assisted uranium enrichment. An idea scientists have batted around for decades, laser enrichment would be far less expensive than traditional centrifuge technology in producing fuel for nuclear reactors. A 50 percent reduction in fuel costs, the savings some experts predict, would translate into a significant reduction in the overall long-term costs of expanding the nation’s electricity generation from nuclear power, a policy that makes sense for myriad reasons.
However, if the research now underway in Wilmington and elsewhere pays off, laser enrichment of uranium could also prove to be an attractive technology for states or terror networks to acquire. In the Monitor piece, analysts differ on how worrisome the prospect would be. I think even the low-bound estimate is sufficiently risky to merit careful precautions.
I don’t think the risk justifies putting the kibosh on the current research effort, though.
For one thing, the notion that shutting down research in America is sufficient to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons just doesn’t ring true to me. There are plenty of smart people around the world with access to scientific knowledge, equipment, and expertise. If the U.S. power industry doesn’t pioneer laser enrichment, it may take a while longer for the technology to prove itself. But eventually, someone will figure it out. A better strategy against proliferation, it seems to me, is to identify the states who pose the greatest danger to American interests and world peace – Iran comes immediately to mind – and use as many different means as practical to attempt to make them less dangerous over time.
To pretend that we can protect ourselves from terrorist states by halting our own scientific research is a fool’s errand, it seems to me. The long-term goal ought to be to reduce the number of terrorist states. Non-military means are strongly to be preferred, of course, though ruling the military option out completely weakens the effectiveness of those other means, much as ruling out potential prison time weakens the effectiveness of intensive probation.
We shouldn’t be Panglossian about the ability of scientific advances in energy policy. The basic practicalities of, for example, transmitting energy from where it is generated to where it is demanded limits the ability of new technologies such as advanced windmills or solar-thermal plants to replace a large percentage of our baseload generating capacity, given that those technologies tend to make the most sense in prairies and deserts far removed from the populous coasts. But I do think history teaches us not to assume technological stasis. It would certainly be wonderful if future innovations bring us plentiful energy with lower cost. It’s likely that such innovation will occur, and indeed we should assume that we can’t even guess at some of the fruits that future scientific discoveries will bear.
What is predictable is that if policymakers prematurely rule out future options on the basis of politics, or their own preferences for how their “subjects” should live their lives, the result will be less than optimal. In energy research, I say let a thousand flowers bloom – and be willing to harvest the bounty wherever we may find it, from the desolate tundra of Alaska and the sea bottom off the Carolina coast to the depths of the Earth and even my own backyard.
Though you may have to pay me a bit for the latter.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.