29 September 2011

Enrich Your Own Uranium


There were breathless reports this week that Australian scientists (yes, we still fund a couple, and these are physicists, not those bloody climate change ones) are developing a new method of refining uranium. The method, if perfected, will make a difficult process much easier. The US and Australian governments have entered negotiations whereby the technology will be licensed to General Electric, which would then build a billion dollar enrichment plant in North Carolina to supply 60 of the US’s nuclear power plants.

Ignoring the fact that all this possibly puts us in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (hey, we sleep soundly while supplying 15% of the world’s uranium already, why not enrich it too); ignoring the fact that the US has taken reckless actions (e.g. the invasion of Iraq, the STUXNET worm) to prevent countries whose governments it does not approve of from enriching uranium; what pissed me off was the hushed tones of secrecy surrounding the technology.

Western Democracy is obsessed with secrecy. The decisions and processes of government and business are hidden under a sheet of confidentiality. Citizens may, at times, lift a corner of this sheet through freedom of information requests, but in general one must know where and what to look for. This is not how our society should be run. The usual bleatings about security were shown to be nonsense when Wikileaks dumped about a billion diplomatic cables into the public domain. A few people had their noses put out of joint; a few people’s opinions about other people, or countries, were revealed. The world did not collapse. The terrorists did not win.

Yet, here was the media reporting on the new method of uranium enrichment with fawning obedience to the cult of secrecy. The method (and the company’s name) is SILEX, or Separation of Isotopes by Laser EXcitation. It is both classified and proprietary. End of story. No scientists were interviewed about the possible mechanism for such enrichment. There was no speculation. It was as if the merest description of the process would crack it wide open for any half-arsed scientist from Jakarta to Islamabad. Hell, you could probably do it yourself with shit you bought down at Bunnings.

So, in the interests of a full and frank discussion on the technology and the part we are playing in its development, this is how it probably works. Uranium ore is refined and gasified, becoming uranium hexafluoride. This is mixed with a carrier gas and exposed to pulsed laser radiation from a series of CO2 lasers at the wavelength of 16┬Ám. This laser energy selectively excites the uranium isotopes used in nuclear reactors – 235U – allowing the stream of gas containing them to be funneled off, condensed and processed back into reactor feedstock. Voila.

Let’s just check out the window…. No fireballs and/or mushroom clouds? No, the people, from whatever country, who are developing this technology know all of the above already. Failing to include such details in your reporting simply serves to keep the issue opaque, while playing to the tune of cold war Spy vs. Spy nonsense that surrounds the nuclear industry.  

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