Issues With LES Parent Company Might Be Red Flags

By Ben Neary
Santa Fe New Mexican
December 9, 2003

Some European companies in the consortium pushing to open a uranium-enrichment plant in Eunice, N.M., have troubled histories.

Louisiana Energy Services, owned by a consortium of Dutch, British and other companies, has secured the blessings of New Mexico's congressional delegation, Gov. Bill Richardson and local politicians to build a $1.2-billion plant in the southeastern corner of the state to produce fuel for nuclear power plants.

Marshall Cohen, vice president of LES, says other companies' problems overseas have no relevance to his company's plans in New Mexico. He emphasizes that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission would oversee all aspects of his plant's operations and ensure that they meet safety standards.

But some environmentalists say the overseas problems should give New Mexico pause before it embraces construction of a uranium plant here.

British Nuclear Fuels Limited is parent company of Westinghouse Electric Corp., one of the main owners of LES.

Wild pigeons found flying around BNFL's nuclear plant in Sellafield, Wales, have been found to be so radioactive that the British government put out a public health warning against the possibility that anyone might try to use them for food.

The Irish government, meanwhile, has unsuccessfully sued to stop BNFL from discharging radioactive waste at Sellafield into the Irish Sea.

According to British government reports, workers at the Sellafield plant have falsified production records of uranium/plutonium fuel. This prompted power plants in Japan and elsewhere to reject fuel rods from Sellafield as a safety precaution.

The other main owner of LES is a Dutch/British consortium called Urenco.

According to news reports, United Nations inspectors just last month were probing the possibility that Iran has obtained classified Urenco information about uranium- enrichment that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons. Urenco issued a statement that it's confident there's no link between itself and the technology that inspectors have found in Iran.

Urenco has also long been suspected as the unwitting source of nuclear technology that put Pakistan on the map as a nuclear power.

The Reuters news agency reported last month that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, worked at the Urenco enrichment facility in the Dutch city of Almelo in the 1970s.

After Khan returned to Pakistan, he was convicted in absentia of nuclear espionage in Amsterdam, Reuters reported. That conviction was later overturned.

Dutch officials had alleged that Khan had copied plans for a uranium centrifuge at the Almelo plant. The LES proposal calls for using centrifuge technology at the planned New Mexico plant.

A delegation of elected officials from southeast New Mexico toured the Almelo facility this summer.

The Lea County Commission approved $1.8 billion in industrial-revenue bonds this summer to encourage LES to locate its plant there. The bonds mean that the company would not pay property tax, and possibly other taxes, for 30 years to offset the cost of building the plant.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque has been following LES's efforts to get established in New Mexico. His group has a long history of working to represent Navajo communities against a uranium-mining company.

Hancock says he intends to review LES's application to operate its proposed plant when it's filed, perhaps as soon as this month. He said the center hasn't decided whether it will oppose the application.

While Hancock said he doesn't have any firsthand knowledge of Urenco's operations, he said he believes the company's history is a legitimate issue for New Mexico to consider.

"The BNFL history I do have some first-hand knowledge of, and BNFL's history is not good," Hancock said. "Those are issues that people should look at."

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