General Electric, an atomic pioneer and one of the world’s largest companies, says its initial success began in July 2009 at a facility just north of Wilmington, N.C., that is jointly owned with Hitachi. It is impossible to independently verify that claim because the federal government has classified the laser technology as top secret. But G.E. officials say that the achievement is genuine and that they are accelerating plans for a larger complex at the Wilmington site.
“We are currently optimizing the design,” Christopher J. Monetta, president of Global Laser Enrichment, a subsidiary of G.E. and Hitachi, said in an interview.
Donald M. Kerr, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons lab who was recently briefed on G.E.’s advance, said in an interview that it looked like a breakthrough after decades of exaggerated claims.
How does SILEX work?
* It is a classified project. Those who know all the details have signed non-disclosure
* Uses mixture of UF6 with a carrier gas (proprietary info)
* Mixture is cooled to separate resonance peaks of U-235 and U-238
* 16 μm laser selectively excites 235UF6
* One or more infrared laser frequencies may be used.
* A Raman conversion cell is used to convert the 10.8 μm laser pulses into 16 μm pulses.
* The actual separation efficiency is classified and so is the repetition rate of the laser pulses as well as the pulse widths.
* High repetition rates (over 250 Hz) and narrow pulse widths (less than 100 ns) are most desirable to enrich enough uranium
— John L. Lyman, “Enrichment Separative Capacity for SILEX,” Report for Los Alamos National Laboratory
What are the reported advantages of SILEX?
* “Low power consumption and capital costs.
* Relatively simple and practical separation modules.
* Modular technology providing versatility in deployment”
* Projected enrichment efficiency 2 to 20 as compared to 1.3 for the centrifuge method.
Why SILEX may not pose a major proliferation concern
* Many elements of the SILEX system are technically challenging.
* Hard to make well-collimated stream of gas
* Details of carrier gas closely held
* Very advanced laser system
* Most likely would need large team of technical experts as well as significant financial resources