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Sierra Magazine
Dangerous Liaisons

Tell Some Friends!

(Page 4 of 5)

"The trouble with secrecy is that it denies to the government itself the wisdom and the resources of the whole community."
- J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, 1955

Though proliferation is off the table in the LES bid, the NRC has shown an interest in homeland security - but in ways that have infuriated opponents of the plant. For example, the company was allowed to argue at the hearing that it would provide domestic "energy security," protecting the country in the event of disruptions of foreign fuel supplies. (Never mind that LES is merely the American face of a company dominated by foreign-owned Urenco.)

Homeland security has also been invoked to hide frightening facts. Announcing that it needed to screen for "terrorist-useful information," last October the NRC shut down public access to most of the documents on its Web site - many of which contained information relevant to the LES license application. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a member of both the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Select Committee on Homeland Security, immediately questioned the move. In a letter to the NRC's chair, Markey wrote, "I am concerned that the Commission may now be using security as an excuse to further erode the public's right to find out about and participate in the Commission's activities."

Says the NRC's Johnson, "The potential for terrorism justified removing [certain] material," adding that information was scrubbed that might have helped terrorists "identify where they could do the most damage."

"That's a bunch of baloney," says Don Hancock, director of the Southwest Research and Information Center's nuclear-waste program. The missing files included floor plans and accident analyses, "including such 'terrorist-related' activities as the impact of an earthquake," he says. The now-absent material also noted that if a rail accident involving a shipment of radioactive waste from the facility occurred in an urban area, approximately 28,000 people could suffer adverse health effects, and if an accident involving uranium hexafluoride gas occurred on-site, there would be at least seven "latent cancer fatalities" from exposure.

Peter Brand is an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C. "It's safe to say that, like most government agencies, the NRC overdoes the 'we need this to be secret to keep you safe' thing," he says. "Those 19 guys on September 11 weren't using specific information on Web sites. They just cased security and figured out what they could do." Adds Hancock, "If on the one hand LES is not a dangerous facility, then it's of no use to terrorists." If it is dangerous, "they should legally and morally tell the public what the real risks and impacts are."

In December the NRC ruled that if outside groups want to see the uncensored documents, they will have to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to disclose the information. (Though some expert witnesses have signed the agreements in order to prepare their testimony in opposition to the LES facility, no one else has yet signed away their freedom of speech to gain access to what until a few months ago were public documents.)

According to Hancock, the NRC is focusing on the wrong threats and ignoring the most salient national-security issues. So is Congress. "Congress is taking a basically hands-off approach; that LES is a private enterprise and under NRC jurisdiction so there's no point in intervening," he says. To the degree that there has been intervention, it has been boosterism on the part of Pete Domenici (R-N.Mex.), the powerful chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. In 2003, the senator pledged to aid LES by working "at all levels to help get through the long permit and regulatory process." He then praised LES partner Urenco and its history of uranium enrichment in Europe. Of Urenco's past performance, he added, "We can expect as much here."

Continued
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