Is President Bush's "axis of evil" campaign about to be undermined
in his own backyard? A proposed uranium enrichment facility planned in
Hartsville, Tenn. (pop. 2,395) raises just that question. One of the
plant's principle backers is URENCO, a European consortium linked to
leaks of enrichment technology to, yes, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea--as
well as to Pakistan.
Sources tell TIME that senior Bush appointees, upset by the ongoing
crisis with North Korea, have held detailed discussions in recent days
on the need to stop leaks of nuclear technology to rogue states. "To
have this company operate in the U.S. after it was the source of
sensitive technology reaching foreign powers does raise serious
concerns," a high-level U.S. nuclear security administrator told TIME,
the first public comment by a Federal official on the proposed plant's
ownership. "The national security community or the new Homeland
Security Department will need to look at this."
Concerns about URENCO first emerged more than 10 years ago when
thousands of centrifuge parts, based on URENCO designs, were discovered
by U.N. inspectors in Iraq after the Gulf War. A one-time URENCO
scientist, known as the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, is said
to have taken URENCO centrifuge blueprints and information on the
company's suppliers to his homeland, later passing similar sensitive
material to North Korea and Iran.
The company that wants to build the new Tennessee enrichment plant
is called Louisiana Energy Services. A consortium of U.S. and foreign
companies in which URENCO has a major financial role, LES insists that
the link between URENCO and nuclear proliferation is "long ago and
far-fetched at this point." URENCO itself has denied authorizing leaks
of technology to rogue states.
The only previous attempt by LES to build an enrichment plant
involved a multi-year effort in the 1990's targeting a small town in
Louisiana. Closed Congressional hearings on Iraqi attempts to acquire
nuclear weapons were held not long before, and delved into URENCO's
record. Subsequently, powerful Michigan Democrat JOHN DINGELL raised
concerns that the LES plant in Louisiana might violate provisions
governing the movement of classified technology from foreign countries
under the Federal Atomic Energy Act. That issue was never resolved, but
LES gave up attempts to build the Louisiana facility amid controversy
over its impact on nearby African-American residents.
With its latest effort in Tennessee, LES seems especially anxious to
avoid a reprise of those controversies. In an unusual move, LES has
asked for a greenlight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission without
the usual public comment on various environmental, safety and security
issues. But groups like the Sierra Club and the National Resources
Defense Council contend that this will simply, "reduce the ...
licensing procedure to a flimsy rubber stamp." LES plans to file its
3,000 page license application with the Federal government by January
30, to be followed by a review process that could take at least a year.
Also controversial are unanswered questions about the disposal of
the Tennessee plant's radioactive waste. Officials in Tennessee have
reached a tentative agreement with LES to cap the amount of waste and,
last week, the company announced that the material would not stay in
Tennessee permanently. But it offered no details as to where the waste
might be transferred, a process that can be subject to complex federal
So far few Tennessee politicians have taken a position on the new
enrichment plant. That includes Sen. BILL FRIST, the new Senate Majority
Leader, who has remained neutral on the proposed plant in his home
state. But he plans to follow the debate "very closely," says an aide.