A nuclear power partnership of General Electric and Hitachi has received federal approval to build the first plant to enrich uranium for use in commercial reactors using a classified laser technology.
The approval alarmed some advocates of nuclear weapons control, who say they fear that allowing companies to use the cheaper and easier technology could increase the risk of it falling into the wrong hands.
“We think the approval of the license was done without due consideration of proliferation,” said Edwin S. Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re already grappling with how to cope with Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability” and the laser technology “could make the problem of global proliferation intractable and uncontrollable.”
G.E.-Hitachi said it had not yet decided whether the project would be profitable enough to begin construction of the $1 billion plant. Part of the evaluation will involve weighing whether markets for enriched uranium will hold for years into the future, said Christopher White, a spokesman for the partnership.
But the company made assurances that its hold on the classified technology was secure.
“The company has worked with the N.R.C., the U.S. Departments of State and Energy and independent nonproliferation experts for several years to ensure the security of this technology and has met — and in many cases exceeded — all regulations pertaining to safeguarding this technology,” G.E.-Hitachi Nuclear Energy said in a statement.
The license, awarded Tuesday, allows G.E.-Hitachi to enrich uranium to 8 percent by weight. Uranium is enriched to 90 percent purity to build atomic bombs.
The United States and five other world powers have imposed sanctions on Iran because it has enriched uranium to 20 percent, a level that could be turned into weapons-grade material much more quickly than power-plant fuel.