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I asked what had changed to close security loopholes. Cohen didn't know, but assured me his company would provide an answer. It never did.


Sierra Magazine
Dangerous Liaisons

(Page 2 of 5)

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In 2001, A. Q. Khan was interviewed at his home in Islamabad for John Friedman's 2002 documentary Stealing the Fire. He spoke calmly about his role as the "father" of Pakistan's bomb, defending his thievery as a necessary means to protect his country. The interview is chilling - all the more so because the nuclear secrets Khan stole are unrecoverable. "Today, people including President Bush say that the Khan network is finished," Friedman told me. But they don't understand that Khan set up an ongoing procurement system. "The technology is out there, and as long as there are buyers, there are sellers."

Of course New Mexico isn't Iran or North Korea. Presumably safeguards will be in place that would make U.S. technology less vulnerable. But plans and materials could still be stolen, as they were in Amsterdam. Moreover, if "responsible" nuclear states like the United States insist on using centrifuges to enrich uranium for their nuclear power plants, why shouldn't Brazil - which reportedly got the technology from the West German branch of Urenco in the 1970s, in violation of the NPT - or Iran, or any other aspiring nuclear state? If centrifuges become the technology of choice for nuclear-reactor fuel, it will be impossible to prevent the technology's spread.

The $1.2 billion New Mexico project is proposed by Louisiana Energy Services, a consortium made up of Westinghouse, Entergy, Exelon, Duke Energy, and Urenco, the latter of which owns a 70 percent share and possesses the classified information necessary to build the plant. LES vice president Rod Krich, "on loan" from Exelon, claims that the facility poses no proliferation threat. "We have agreed to IAEA safety inspections," he says, referring to the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. "And we have designed the plant so that it's impossible to enrich the uranium to weapons- grade." The plant could be retooled to produce highly enriched uranium, of course, but that's not what its critics are worried about. The problem is that no one knows whether the 21st-century Urenco has plugged its security leaks.

"[Urenco's] technology was stolen a long time ago and a lot has changed since then," says Bruce Moran, an NRC staffer who monitors international nuclear safety. When asked to explain exactly what Urenco had done to ensure that its classified nuclear secrets were secure, a Urenco spokesperson told me that since the New Mexico plant will be an "LES enrichment facility," I would need to speak with LES (even though, according to an LES spokesperson, the centrifuges will be assembled on-site by Urenco security-cleared contractors). I then asked LES vice president Marshall Cohen what had changed since A. Q. Khan's day to close security loopholes. Cohen didn't know offhand but repeatedly assured me, in calls, by e-mail, and in person, his company would provide an answer. It never did.

The UN's proposed five-year moratorium on the construction of centrifuge uranium-enrichment facilities is an effort to stop the threat of what a UN commission has called a "cascade of proliferation." The idea has been praised from quarters as unlikely as the conservative National Review magazine, never a fan of the UN. "It buys the world time to reevaluate the effectiveness of the current set of nuclear rules," wrote Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in the January issue. Given the European leaks that unleashed the nuclear genie in Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea, Sokolski emphasized that all states, not just "trouble states like Iran," should honor the moratorium.

Louisiana Energy Services has tried and failed twice before to build a uranium centrifuge facility in the United States. Low-income communities, first in Louisiana and then in Tennessee, needed the jobs but not the radioactive waste or airborne toxics produced by the facility, and ran the consortium out of town.

The third try may be the charm. In Hobbs, New Mexico, a boom/bust oil town of 28,000, the public is noticeably absent from February public hearings before the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, which will recommend whether to license the LES plant. City officials are solidly behind the idea, and local residents are desperate for new jobs. "Very few people have gone to these public hearings," says Rose Gardner. "They trust our leaders to make the right decisions." Gardner, 46, owns Desert Rose Flowers and Gifts in the tiny town of Eunice, 20 miles from Hobbs and 5 miles from the proposed site. On the first day of the weeklong hearings, she and retired Hobbs businessman Lee Cheney are the only members of the audience not associated with either the media or LES.

Rose Gardner
Skeptical neighbor Rose Gardner.

Each morning of the hearings, Gardner makes the trek from Eunice to Hobbs, shuttering her flower shop the week before Valentine's Day, her busiest season. "When I heard about the plant, I went to the LES office and asked for more information. They treated me like an imbecile. That was a mistake." Gardner has a soft voice and a powerful Tex-Mex accent. She's more soccer mom than rabble-rouser, but in 2004, when she began getting bits and pieces of news about the company that wanted to come to Eunice, something didn't sit right. When she couldn't get the information from LES, she went online. "I typed 'uranium enrichment,'" she says. "That's when my education began."

The drive between Eunice and Hobbs is flat and empty but for scrub mesquite, pump jacks, and gas storage tanks. The air is often thick with hydrogen sulfide, released when methane is pumped out of the wells. "It's why we're called the armpit of New Mexico," Gardner says with a crooked smile. "It smells like rotten eggs." Her father was a roustabout in the oilfields that encircle Eunice. Born and raised there, Gardner was a pumper for a while with Conoco and married a boy who had lived so close to her growing up that she "could throw a stick at him anytime I wanted to." She and her husband raised two daughters. The Gardners and the other 2,700 residents of Eunice are bookended by Dynegy natural-gas processing plants on the north and south sides of town. At the town's center flies a massive American flag; it could easily envelop the average Eunice home. Gas flares in the hazy distance lend a sci-fi aura of a ruined future. Yet Gardner loves where she lives. "It's all I know," she says. Gardner went to her city council representatives and politely suggested they show up and get an education at the Hobbs hearings. Her husband, a city council member himself, has frequently been subjected to her chastisements about getting involved; she's on a mission and family members aren't exempt. "Proverbs 25:15 says patient persuasion can break down the strongest resistance and can even convince rulers," she says.

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