This would be a major and dangerous change from the way things work now. Fortunately, the secret uranium enrichment facility in North Korea was uncovered. Fortunately, the "secret" facility in Qom, Iran was also spotted. But, now our luck may be running out; we are on the brink of losing our ability to detect covert uranium enrichment plants.
Here's one thing the U.S. can do to help keep those facilities in plain sight: NRC can conduct an assessment of the proliferation risks of any enrichment facility before granting a license. With a rigorous assessment, a facility would only get commercialized by assuring that it has some unique detectable "signature." It may have a distinct infrared or acoustic trace that is evident to our satellite or ground based arrays. Or, there may be a unique component of the technology whose acquisition would indicate the intent to build a facility. Any of those would guarantee that the US would always have the ability to detect the facility, diminishing worries about covert construction or use.
This idea was proposed last June in a bipartisan letter that members of the House Nuclear Security Caucus sent to the NRC. Citing the disastrous proliferation that resulted from the theft of the URENCO enrichment facility plans in the Netherlands, they observed that "the uncovering of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network has demonstrated that we can never be too careful in protecting nuclear materials technologies."
A petition is now pending before the NRC this month, open for public comment, which proposes requiring Nuclear Proliferation Assessments (NPAs) as part of the licensing process. If the proposal is accepted by NRC, then NPAs would become an immediate and effective step in assuring that advanced nuclear fuel technologies are detectable - a strong disincentive to their covert spread.
Can NPAs be implemented without jeopardizing the development of nuclear power in the U.S. or the competitiveness of the nuclear industry? Absolutely. In fact, General Electric proved the point.
General Electric voluntarily carried out a proliferation assessment of its new laser enrichment facility being developed in Wilmington, North Carolina. As one of the participants in the assessment explained, it was done without delaying the timeline and without jeopardizing classified or proprietary information.
GE took a first step. Now, NRC needs to follow up, review the assessment, and formalize the process so that all companies are held to the same common-sense standard.
Of course, not every new enrichment technology will be commercialized in the U.S., so this proposal can't be 100% effective. But, that's no reason do the best possible job of policing the situation, as the Representatives pointed out in their letter to NRC. While NPAs "will not ensure that nuclear technologies are not diverted to weapons production or other military other purposes" they concluded that NPAs "can provide an additional and perhaps crucial layer of protection against their proliferation and use against the United States."
This was a bipartisan national security issue in the 111th Congress and Members of Congress that led the effort are determined to keep it a bipartisan issue in the new Congress. They know that without strong action now, we may not be able to detect the next nuclear fuel technology until it is too late.
Francis Slakey is the Upjohn Lecturer on Physics and Public Policy at Georgetown University.