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Domenici inserted language into the Energy Policy Act of 2003 that would "limit the consideration of need" for uranium-enrichment plants to whether they would advance both energy security and "the deployment of advanced centrifuge enrichment technology." He also added wording that speeds up the application process for such plants to no more than two years, and forces the U.S. government to take responsibility for the facility's radioactive waste. The energy bill will most likely be resubmitted in 2005.
Arizona's Republican senator John McCain was outraged by the action. "[It] would suspend important environmental reviews to facilitate the construction of uranium-processing facilities in New Mexico," McCain said, and added, "Even more disturbing, . . . Urenco has been associated with leaks of uranium-enrichment technology to Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Pakistan."
Senator Domenici is an old friend of the energy industry. He was the top Senate recipient of money from electric utilities (which include nuclear power plants) during the 2002 election cycle. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he received more than $175,000 from electric utilities alone, and more than $400,000 from the energy and natural-resources sector overall.
In interviews with the Santa Fe New Mexican, Domenici has expressed a desire to create a "nuclear corridor" along a 60-mile stretch of the Texas-New Mexico border, where radioactive waste dumps and the LES facility would support existing nuclear power plants and new plants around the country. Though no new nuclear power plants have been ordered since 1978, plans are now in the pipeline to relicense 18 reactors at 9 power plants nationwide. The LES centrifuge project would fuel the renaissance. "American utilities are fully supportive," says LES's Cohen. "We already have sales contracts, even though we're years from being able to provide enriched uranium."
Plant executives, and even the NRC's point people, talk about energy security, but they are really focused on what the New Mexico plant will do for the nuclear power industry. So focused, in fact, that they refuse to acknowledge what it could do for nuclear proliferation. With regard to the moratorium proposed by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, they simply argue that the United States is exceptional. LES executives Cohen and Krich as well as the NRC's Moran and Johnson each assured me individually that the United States would be exempt. "The IAEA has stated that [the moratorium] proposal is not intended to cover countries, such as the U.S., that already have enrichment capabilities," says Cohen.
In a piece written for London's Financial Times shortly before the New Mexico hearing, however, the IAEA's director general, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, stated unequivocally that all countries should honor the moratorium, which would present a rare opportunity to cool tensions with Iran. (The proposal will be debated during a May meeting at the United Nations to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.)
"The [United States] seems to have a double standard; it is determined to have other governments bend to its will when it comes to proliferation but is not willing to accept the same standards for itself," says Lawrence Wittner, a professor of history at the State University of New York, Albany, and author of the 2003 book Toward Nuclear Abolition. "The view that there are evil nations and virtuous ones scraps the earlier universalistic aspects of nuclear arms control and disarmament."
Three international crises of the Bush presidency - Iraq, North Korea, and Iran - were all fueled by fears of centrifuge programs. Remember those aluminum tubes? Vice President Dick Cheney argued for an invasion of Iraq based on outdated information that Saddam Hussein was "trying, through his illicit procurement network, to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium." Iraq's weapons program - based on centrifuge information reportedly provided by German scientists who had worked for a Urenco subcontractor - had been set back at least a decade by the Gulf War. Iraq posed no imminent nuclear threat. But there are other Saddams, who would like nothing better than to get their hands on nuclear warheads. It would be tragic if the smoking gun - the proof that there is no fail-safe way to use centrifuge enrichment technology - came in the form of a mushroom cloud.
Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's writer/editor. Her last investigative piece, "The Cost of Doing Business," appeared in our May/June 2004 issue.
To find out how to support Sierra's investigative articles, e-mail email@example.com. She heads the Sierra Investigative Journalism Project.
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