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(Page 3 of 5)

Gardner has environmental concerns about the facility, "but proliferation is the most important thing," she tells me one afternoon as we drive from Eunice along a section of highway that's been "adopted" by Warren Petroleum. "Homeland Security is constantly telling us to be prepared, be ready, and yet my little town is welcoming a company that possesses the very technology that terrorists want. In all good conscience, I can't welcome this plant. I don't know where else it can go, but I know I don't want it here."

The NRC's three-member panel spends the week listening to expert testimony, asking tough and technical questions of witnesses on both sides of the issue. Their queries involve everything from whether there are interconnected geologic fractures that would spread contaminated material into underground waterways to whether the company has a safe way to dispose of its radioactive waste. (The board will release its findings on these environmental issues in June.)

"It's a great process," says LES's Krich, adding that he's satisfied "all the important decisions are being addressed." But legal proceedings last year limited what could be discussed at these hearings. Two proliferation issues were ruled out-of-bounds by the NRC: the advisability of allowing Urenco to operate on U.S. soil, given its security lapses; and whether having a larger domestic fuel supply would slow U.S. efforts to deal with the huge stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium in Russia. That nation has 600 tons of poorly secured nuclear material, and Russian officials reported four incidents of "terrorist reconnaissance" of the stockpiles in 2001. Since 1993, the United States has been buying Russia's stockpiles, supplying it with needed currency while removing a sought-after ingredient for terrorists bent on nuclear mayhem. The Bush administration has acknowledged the importance and success of this program, calling it "a key element of U.S. nonproliferation policy." Dubbed "Megatons to Megawatts," it's also an excellent source of reactor fuel. Just as uranium can be enriched, the process can work the other way as well: Weapons-grade uranium can be "downblended" to create the less potent uranium used in reactors.

Lindsay Lovejoy, a Santa Fe attorney representing two Washington, D.C.-based groups, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and Public Citizen, contends that the LES plant would slow Russia's stockpile reduction, since there would be less demand for Russia's product. Other experts aren't so sure. Harvard's Matthew Bunn, for one, says that New Mexico's current plans "are modest compared to the scale of Russia's stockpiles. From a nonproliferation point of view, it's not a huge problem if New Mexico goes ahead with the plant." Each year, Russia provides 5.5 million "separative work units," or SWUs, of low-enriched uranium to the United States; LES would produce 3 million SWUs. Bunn adds, however, that there might be a problem if both LES and a similar centrifuge plant proposed for Piketon, Ohio, were green-lighted.

Where the truth in this debate lies is apparently irrelevant to the NRC. In opening remarks to the panel, Lovejoy was forced to reduce his arguments on the Urenco and Russia connections to two sentences: "There are matters of the highest national importance, including the proliferation impact of this facility, that can't be addressed here but that should be," Lovejoy warned. "I hope someone is thinking about these issues." The three-judge panel thanked him and moved on.

The NRC's decision to limit debate "was disappointing but not surprising," says Amy Williams, co-coordinator for Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety in Santa Fe. "The NRC looks at licensing issues in a very black-and-white way." Proliferation is "outside the scope" of the very agency with the power to approve nuclear-plant licenses. The limiting of public debate has troubled New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D), who released a statement last August criticizing the agency's refusal to consider important issues in the LES application, including "the adequacy of proliferation safeguards related to foreign ownership."

This Achilles heel worries Nuclear Information and Resource Service executive director Michael Marriotte as well. "The NRC doesn't have any mechanisms set up to examine national-security issues in this kind of context," he says.

The NRC's project manager for the New Mexico plant, Tim Johnson, is impatient when asked to explain the apparent lapse. Proliferation "has nothing to do with the licensing for this facility... it's not part of the decision that we're making." He adds that if such issues were a concern they would be investigated by the Department of Energy as part of the NRC's licensing process. Yet the DOE has already expressed its support for the LES plant. "They said it was in our national interest to have another [enriched uranium] supply located in this country," Johnson says.

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