An Australian nuclear physicist has developed a new enrichment process and been granted approval by US regulators to develop it commercially, despite fears it could promote the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Carnegie's James Acton talks to Australia's ABC News.

LEIGH SALES: Two years after the disastrous meltdown of the Fukushima power plant, the Japanese people are still dealing with the fall-out and the debate over nuclear energy is as polarised as ever. In Australia, proponents of nuclear power are stepping up their efforts to win support. One Australian physicist has developed a revolutionary new enrichment process which has been given the go-ahead by regulators in the United States to the alarm of anti-nuclear activists. Greg Hoy reports. 

GREG HOY, REPORTER: Inside Australia's top-secret nuclear facility, Lucas Heights, in Sydney, a ground-breaking development is under way. Australian nuclear physicist Dr Michael Goldsworthy and his company Silex are refining top-secret laser technology. While filming the real lasers is prohibited, this technology will revolutionise enrichment of uranium for the world's nuclear power plants, slashing costs and the scale of production.

MICHAEL GOLDSWORTHY, DR, CEO, SILEX SYSTEMS: The technological hurdle to achieve and deploy a laser enrichment technology is just incredible and it's taken us you know, 20-something years to get to this point.

GREG HOY: Silex has struck a lucrative licensing deal with a consortium formed by nuclear giants general Electric and Hitachi. Their global laser enrichment corporation was recently given the green light by the US nuclear regulatory commission to build the first of many laser enrichment plants in North Carolina.

MICHAEL GOLDSWORTHY: That's a milestone event for us, the Hitachi license, it really gives global laser enrichment now the go-ahead to construct and operate the first commercial plant that would generate about a billion dollars revenue.

TV REPORTER: Earlier this week the GE Hitachi facility in Castlemaine received federal approval to enrich uranium using laser technology, but what exactly does that mean and what are the implications to our community?

GREG HOY: The global implications are profound according to the American physicists' society and non-proliferation groups who fear the Silex technology will promote the spread of nuclear weapons.

James M. Acton
Acton holds the Jessica T. Mathews Chair and is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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JAMES ACTON, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: This decision by the NRC really was a historic one. This was a decision taken without serious regard to proliferation consequences. It can take place in very small facilities and if the technology spreads then potential proliferators could use laser enrichment technology secretly to try and build nuclear weapons.

GREG HOY: A second plant has already been proposed. In Paducah, Kentucky, sits the largest nuclear enrichment facility in America, covering 800 acres. General electric Hitachi and the US department of energy are now suggesting it be converted to the Silex laser technology. This would shrink Paducah to one quarter of its size. It's the shrinkage that worries American physicist like James Acton, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

JAMES ACTON: The electricity usage of a laser enrichment plant would be much, much less than one quarter of Paducah's, so this is an illustration of the way how similar activities by other states would be extremely hard to detect.

GREG HOY: Silex laser technology has been highly classified in a special bilateral agreement between the US and Australian Governments. Dr Goldsworthy must undergo regular security training.

MICHAEL GOLDSWORTHY: I don't think that our technology will proliferate at all. It'll be kept under very tight security.

GREG HOY: Sceptics like James Acton point to history. Tight security surrounding the US atomic bomb in World War II failed. The secret leaked out, now there's around 20,000 nuclear weapons spread around the globe.

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JAMES ACTON: Keeping classified information secret for prolonged periods of time is extremely difficult. GE Hitachi isn't only going to have to defend itself against industrial espionage, it might have to defend against State centred espionage threats.

GREG HOY: Buoyed by his success in America, Dr Goldsworthy is now urging Australia, which has the world's largest uranium reserves, to embrace nuclear power as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.

MICHAEL GOLDSWORTHY: Our insatiable hunger for fossil fuels has to be tempered going forward and the only alternative for base load grid power, that's the power you need 24/7, other than coal, is nuclear power.

GREG HOY: It's a contentious subject. Some are supportive like the former head of the Australian departments of energy and of defence, Paul Barratt.

PAUL BARRATT, FORMER SECRETARY, DEFENCE DEPARTMENT: It potentially is the solution to, or an important contributor to reducing carbon emissions which is, the global circumstances are getting very dire.

GREG HOY: To anti-nuclear campaigners like David Bradbury, who's filmed protest movements from Australia to India, Dr Goldsworthy's project is simply outrageous.

DAVID BRADBURY, FRONTLINE FILMS: The long-term repercussions of it is that we're going to have more uranium being enriched around the planet, it's going to lead to a mountain of nuclear waste for which we have not created any solution to be able to store it safely and so in so doing it's going to create a nightmare for present and future generations to deal with.

GREG HOY: David Bradbury spent three weeks in Iraq filming the after-effects of depleted uranium bombs. He fears as more uranium is processed using cheaper technologies, the more it will lead to horrors like this.

DAVID BRADBURY: I went to the children's hospital in Basra, I went to the General Hospital in Fallujah where there was a baby being born with a twisted cleft palette, spin bifida, with organs that were displaced in its body and the likelihood of autism according to the English-speaking doctor who's been through this nightmare for the last 10 or 15 years. They can't cope with it.

MOTHER AT BASRA HOSPITAL: We start noticing that problem from about early 2006 or late 2005.

GREG HOY: Even advocates of nuclear energy like Paul Barratt are concerned about the increasing use of depleted uranium munitions.

PAUL BARRATT: It is a toxic metal. It'll be there in the environment, kids playing in the dust, people growing vegies, who knows. There is controversy about the extent of the health effects, but there seems to be good reason to believe there are long-term genetic effects, birth defects and what have you.

GREG HOY: Such concerns are clouding the future of a growing nuclear industry worldwide and the commercial opportunities it presents for Australia.

MICHAEL GOLDSWORTHY: We hope that our technology becomes the number one technology for enriching uranium fuel, for the many reactors that are going to be built.

JAMES ACTON: I don't know whether the proliferation risks of laser enrichment outweigh the benefits. The problem is nobody does.

This interview was originally aired on Australia's ABC News.