Advances in uranium enrichment using lasers by General Electric could allow the US conglomerate to process reactor fuel by the ton—but security experts fear the technology could also allow rogue states and terrorist groups to make bomb fuel much more easily, in smaller plants that would be much harder to detect, reports the New York Times. “We’re on the verge of a new route to the bomb,” says one nuclear physicist. “We should have learned enough by now to do an assessment before we let this kind of thing out.”
Uranium 235 accounts for just 0.7% of mined uranium; however, when enriched to 4% concentrations, it can power nuclear reactors, and at 90% it can fuel bombs. Scientists have tried for decades to use lasers to help enrichment, which could lower enrichment costs by 90%, but only now does the technology seem actually viable. GE thinks the laser-enrichment plant it wants to build in Delaware could produce enough uranium each year for 60 large nuclear reactors—enough to power one-third of the homes in the United States. Or, critics contend, 1,000 nuclear weapons. Considering GE's planned plant to be a serious danger, America's largest physicist organization filed a petition last year calling for better risk assessments before a license is granted for the new technology.