Proposed N.M. Nuke Plant Risks Kept Secret
By John Fleck
Albuquerque Journal
January 9, 2005

    If a train shipping radioactive waste from a proposed nuclear fuel factory crashed and burned in Albuquerque, there is a "very remote" chance that 28,000 people could suffer "adverse health effects," according to a federal study.

    If a container inside the factory proposed for southeastern New Mexico overheated enough to rupture again, a remote, worst-case scenario workers in the building would be killed instantly, and a dangerous radioactive cloud would spread upwind.

    But you're not supposed to know any of that.

    Those facts, and most other information about the risks and consequences of accidents associated with the proposed plant, have been removed from publicly available versions of Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents.

    The commission says the information could be useful to terrorists.

    Critics say the public's right to information about the factory's risks has suffered as a result.

    "Isn't safety something that they're willing to discuss?" asked Lindsay Lovejoy, attorney for two groups that oppose the project.

    "The commission has decided that that's information where the sensitivity of it for security reasons is greater than the public's right to know," said NRC staff member Tim Johnson.

    The project, proposed by Louisiana Energy Services for a site near Eunice in southeastern New Mexico, has been caught up in a broad effort begun in October by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to screen all public documents for information that might be useful to terrorists.

    LES, an international consortium of nuclear companies, wants to build a plant to refine uranium so it can be used in nuclear power plant fuel. The NRC is considering whether to license the factory.

    The NRC began cleansing its documents days before NBC News broadcast a story suggesting agency documents could help terrorists.

    The Louisiana Energy Services project was caught up in the document-screening effort, with all documents related to the project removed from the NRC's public reading room in Maryland, as well as its massive Internet-based document collection.

    In the months since, project documents have been slowly released into the public domain. But in many cases, information that had been previously made public has been removed in new censored versions of the documents.

    The most significant case, in terms of public access to information about the factory, involves the project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

    The 480-page tome, a requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, details environmental and safety issues related to the plant.

    Information in the document, originally published in September, ranges from site geology and wildlife in the area to worst-case accident scenarios.

    After sending out printed copies to interested parties, and publishing the information on the Internet, the NRC shut down access in October. When the newly scrubbed version was placed back on the NRC's Internet site the week before Christmas, most of the accident-related information had been removed.

    The NRC's staff concluded the accident information might give a terrorist "information on particular things in the plant to target," Johnson said.

    Because some copies of the document were sent out before the cuts were made, it is possible to determine exactly what has been removed.

    That is what Don Hancock, with the Southwest Research and Information Center, has been doing. His page-by-page review shows that large sections of the document used to calculate health effects and the risks of accidents are now gone from public view.

    The whole point of the National Environmental Policy Act, Hancock pointed out, is to provide information to the public and government decision-makers about environmental impacts the project might have.

    While he still has access to the old, uncensored version of the Environmental Impact Statement, other members of the public do not.

    "This is the kind of thing that now the public doesn't have the right to know," Hancock said in an interview. "That's not OK."

    "I don't know how the public can grapple with these issues with that kind of secrecy," Lovejoy said.

    Rod Krich, the project's lead engineer, said LES would prefer that the information all be public.

    "We have nothing to hide," he said.

    He believes the record shows that the sort of accidents considered in the Environment Impact Statement can be prevented. For example, multiple safety systems will be used to prevent a uranium cylinder explosion, he said, while heavy metal shipping containers will prevent leaks in a transportation accident.

    But as a veteran of the nuclear power industry, Krich said, he also understands the NRC's dilemma in deciding what to keep secret.

    "It pays to be more conservative than not," he said. "I understand where the NRC is coming from."

    What's missing

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, concerned about the threat of terrorism, is scrubbing documents related to a proposed southeastern New Mexico nuclear fuel factory, removing information seen as posing a risk. Among the information that has been removed:
    Maps of the factory site,
    Details of accidents that could happen at the factory,
    Information about possible accidents that could happen shipping material to and from the factory, and
    Earthquake risks.

Copyright 2004 Albuquerque Journal

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