LES Delays License Application

Louisiana Energy Services announced on 29 January that it will delay submission of a license application for its proposed uranium enrichment plant for six to eight weeks. The LES announcement comes amid new controversies over waste and proliferation.

(582.5484) NIRS - The move follows the tabling by the Trousdale County Commissioners on 27 January of a critical vote that would allow LES to build its plant in central Tennessee. The LES announcement brought immediate suspicion that the company is trying to avoid providing details about the project until after it has obtained local approval for the plant. Said Will Calloway of the Tennessee Environmental Council, "It appears LES does not want all the information in the application made available to the public."

The Trousdale County Commissioners first voted to create a new zoning category that would accommodate such a facility, but decided no to take a vote on the actual zoning. The vote now is expected to take place on 25 March; under county law, two votes must be taken at two different meetings, so it appears it would be at least April before a final vote could take place.

While LES spokeswoman Nan Kilkeary tried to put a positive spin on the county's action, describing it as "a real step forward," it appeared to indicate a broadening of opposition to the plant. Several months ago, many observers believed Trousdale County's approval of the project was basically a done deal.

The plant would be located primarily in Trousdale County, on land formerly owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which it had used for its abandoned Hartsville nuclear power complex.

But the land itself it owned by the Four Lake Regional Industrial Development Authority, which is made up if five different counties: Trousdale, Smith, Sumner, Wilson and Macon. While Trousdale has the biggest influence, it is not clear that the county could accept the plant over the opposition of its neighbors.

Already Smith County has voted 22-0 in favor of a public referendum on the issue. A straw vote (unofficial poll) of county commissioners in Macon County was 11-0 against the project. Three towns in the area, Cookeville, Lebanon and Wilson, have taken votes against the plant, and a public meeting is scheduled for Sumner County 24 February. A meeting in Lebanon brought more than 250 people together in mid-January, most against the plant.

LES is a consortium dominated by the European firm Urenco. Other members include Westinghouse (now owned by Urenco partner British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd.), the Canadian uranium mining company Cameco, and U.S. nuclear utilities Exelon, Duke Power and Energy Nuclear.

Urenco and Nuclear Proliferation

Although considerable concern has already been raised about Urenco's record on nuclear proliferation, including the recently-released documentary Stealing the Fire, an article in the 21 January issue of Time magazine shook many Tennessee politicians. Titled "Nukes: To Pyongyang from Nashville?" the article quoted "senior Bush appointees" as having misgivings about allowing Urenco to operate in the U.S.

The article noted that Urenco has been "linked to leaks of enrichment technology to, yes, Iran, and North Korea - as well as Pakistan."

Some of these links have been well known and arose when LES first tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain a license to build a uranium enrichment plant in the U.S., in the 1990s, in Homer, Louisiana.

Pakistan's nuclear program - which has resulted in the testing of a atomic weapons - blossomed with a Urenco employee stole blueprints for the company centrifuge design and brought them home to Pakistan. It is believed that the technology then migrated to Iran, and more recently to North Korea.

The episode is very well documented and even has a book (in Dutch) written about it; a related website, www.atomespionage.com, includes some English information on the issue.

The Urenco-Iraq connection first arose in the mid-1990s, when United Nations weapons inspectors found evidence that Iraq's attempts to develop nuclear weapons capability were based on Urenco centrifuge designs. It was later learned that German contractors for Urenco had supplied Iraq with critical information and blueprints. While no one has suggested that Urenco has deliberately allowed its technology to be taken by previously non-nuclear, potentially hostile countries, Urenco's apparent inability to protect its highly classified designs has raised serious questions about the companies capabilities. Moreover, activists learned only recently that in 1989-90, Urenco hosted 22 Iraqi engineers for training sessions at its Gronau, Germany plant to learn to operate Urenco technology.

A press statement by Urenco in response to the Time article stated, "Urenco would like to affirm that this issue dates back more than 20 years." This is a clearly (and typically) disingenuous statement: while the diversion of Urenco technology to Pakistan does date back that far, the Urenco-Iraq connection is much more recent.

The Time article prompted state Rep. Bob Briley to introduce legislation that would levy a tax on private uranium enrichment plants; funds from the tax would be used to develop non-nuclear renewable energy sources.

LES and radioactive waste

Another problem causing problems for LES is the huge amount of waste the plant would produce. This waste, composed predominantly of uranium fexafluoride (containing depleted uranium) is both radioactive and chemically hazardous. At the size plant LES has said it wants to build (LES has not submitted an actual license application, so its final plans are uncertain), about 400 14-ton canisters of waste would be created each year and stored on-site. LES has tried two main approaches to address concerns over the waste. First, it has attempted to downplay the hazards associated with the material, claiming that residentsą fears about the waste are exaggerated. Of course, that is difficult to do with a substance that, when it is exposed to moisture, turns into hydrofluoric acid, which will eat through almost anything.

LES has also said that it will limit onsite storage of the waste to an approximately five-year inventory. The problem with that is that there is no place to put uranium hexafluoride waste. There are already some 700,000 tons of the material in the U.S. ­ mostly sitting at existing uranium enrichment plants. There has been talk of building a facility to convert some of it to a less hazardous form, but those plans have been delayed by lawsuits from competing firms and even if built, it could take centuries to convert just the waste that now exists.

LES suggests that federal law requires the Department of Energy take the waste that LES produces; it is unclear and untested whether this is the case, but the fact remains that DOE already controls more of the depleted uranium already produced, and has no place to put it. DOE might be forced to take custody of the LES material, but the agency certainly has no place to move it to.

More recently, LES president George Dials has suggested publicly that the company may send the waste to Envirocare in Utah. But according to well-placed sources, LES has never even talked to Envirocare about the issue, certainly not at any deal-making level. And Envirocare's disposal prices, according to those sources, would be prohibitive for the volume of waste LES would create. Moreover, it is not even clear that Envirocare is licensed to accept this waste, which is radioactive for millennia as well as hazardous, and doesn't fall neatly into any Nuclear Regulatory Commission waste classification.

In other words, LES' promise to only a five-year inventory of waste onsite means, at this point at least, that LES would only operate for five years or would have to change its agreement. So far, the company has no other alternative.

Source and contact:
Michael Marriotte
Nuclear Information and Resource Service
1424 16th Street, #404
Washington, D.C. 20036