Is Unicoi County on short list for uranium enrichment plant?

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

The announcement that Unicoi County is in the running for a $1 billion gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility has prompted speculation about who the unnamed backers might be.
   According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, only two groups currently are in the pre-application phase for gas centrifuge facilities: Louisiana Energy Services -- a partnership made up of Urenco, Exelon, Duke Energy, Louisiana Light & Power, and Fluor Daniel; and U.S. Enrichment Corp., of Bethesda, Md. USEC and Urenco are competitors on the world market for enrichment services.
   U.S. Enrichment Corp., which processes and markets uranium for nuclear fuel used by electric utilities worldwide, was created by the Energy Policy Act of 1992. That same year the former Bush administration agreed to purchase weapons-grade uranium from Russia under a program which came to be known as "Megatons to Megawatts."
   USEC, formed as a quasi-government corporation before being privatized in 1998, took over DOE's Uranium Enrichment Enterprise in July 1993 and in 1994 entered into a contract with the Russian Federation to purchase 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium converted to 15,260 metric tons of low-enriched uranium over the next 20 years. Volume of the transaction was equivalent to three years' world demand for enriched uranium.
   According to the NRC, USEC will locate its "lead cascade" testing facility at either Portsmouth or Paducah, though final selection has not been made.
   Urenco last year announced plans to build a $1 billion gas centrifuge plant in the United States. The company originally said it expected to locate the facility at a current nuclear site and was considering possible locations at Portsmouth, Ohio, where USEC had closed down one of its plants, and at Paducah, Ky., home of USEC's only remaining enrichment facility.
   LES plans to use Urenco gas centrifuge technology now used at Urenco's three plants in The Netherlands, United Kingdom and Germany. The as-yet unnamed company considering Unicoi County also plans to use gas centrifuge technology from "the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and elsewhere," according to Unicoi County Executive Paul Monk.
   On May 29, representatives from Louisiana Energy Services and the NRC held a pre-application meeting to discuss codes and standards, security, and topics previously reviewed for an enrichment project LES had planned to build near Homer, La.
   Though LES will be the entity making application to the NRC, Rod Krich of Exelon is the designated contact person for the project.
   Krich told the NRC that it had narrowed its selection of sites to three, however, until appropriate notifications are complete, LES is not ready to identify the sites. The announcement is expected to come within the next month.
   Krich also said the plant would be based on Urenco's Almelo facility in the Netherlands and indicated that the facility will not be located at a nuclear plant site.
   At the May meeting, NRC representatives presented a summary of their visit to Urenco gas centrifuge plants at Capenhurst in the United Kingdom, and Almelo. They cited pluses, such as the simplicity of plant operation and how few staff were required to operate the facility. The NRC staff also was impressed with how maintenance and decontamination is performed, cleanliness of the plant, and how Urenco disposes of its tailings by shipping it to Tenex in Russia for enrichment back to natural uranium levels.
   The NRC's main concern about the U.S. site was the possibility of radiological sabotage and the bulk quantity of uranium hexafluoride which would be handled at the facility. Staff members also raised concerns about the possible theft and diversion of nuclear materials.
   In January 1996, Urenco in cooperation with governments in the Netherlands, Germany and Britain, began an internal security investigation after it was learned that an expert diverted highly classified gas centrifuge design blueprints and sold them to Iraq sometime before 1991 for less than $350,000 in U.S. dollars.
   The expert, Karl-Heinz Schaab, a former Urenco scientist, was believed to have removed blueprints and documents over a period of time and had left Urenco before contacting Iraq.
   Schaab was convicted in 1993 of having exported a number of carbon fiber centrifuge rotors to Iraq prior to the Gulf War and was given a suspended prison sentence. He later sought political asylum in Brazil. Another ex-Urenco centrifuge program expert, Bruno Stemmler, also reportedly helped Iraqi engineers.
   Louisiana Energy Services was denied a license by the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) in 1997 for the Claiborne Enrichment Center near Homer, La., based on an environmental justice contention aimed at protecting minorities from disproportionate exposure to pollution.
   According to the NIRS Nuclear Monitor Extra, the ASLB previously ruled that LES had underestimated its likely decommissioning costs by about 50 percent and that the LES consortium was not financially qualified to build and operate the plant, but was essentially a shell corporation apparently intended to avoid potential liability for its parent companies.
   Efforts by the Star to locate a home page for Louisiana Energy Services on the World Wide Web were unsuccessful.
   In December 1997, the NRC reversed the ASLB decision on financial qualifications and found LES financially qualified. However, LES withdrew its application in 1998 after seven years of review and $34 million in costs. NRC granted the motion to withdraw the license in 1998.
   According to information from the May 29 meeting, the NRC is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for the LES project "on an aggressive 18 month schedule," based on assumptions that the facility will be constructed on an existing nuclear site and that the design will be similar to the previous Homer, La. project. The NRC plans to use applicable material from the Homer project EIS.
   The NRC is expected to receive LES's environmental report in December, which will be followed by scoping meetings in February 2003 and publication of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in October 2003. The final EIS is anticipated in June 2004.
   The proposed plant will have a total capacity of 3 million Separative Work Units (SWU) vs. 1.5 million SWU for the Homer plant, and an assay level of 6 percent enrichment vs. 5 percent for the Homer plant. The same centrifuge type will be used in the new plant as was previously proposed.
   Tim Johnson of the NRC said, "For a commercial enrichment facility an Environmental Impact Statement is required under our regulations. As part of their application, they'll have to submit an environmental report that will contain information that we will use to prepare an EIS."
   Should U.S. Enrichment Corp. decide to build a test facility, Johnson said, "Our Office of General Counsel doesn't think an EIS will be needed, but we'll still have to do an environmental review."