Citizens unite against enrichment plant, threats

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Approximately 120 citizens gathered at Farmhouse Gallery to speak out against a billion-dollar uranium enrichment facility proposed for their community.
   Supporters from Johnson City and Elizabethton, even a couple from across the mountain in Asheville stopped by to lend support to "Unicoi Citizens for Public Information." Not even threats stopped the gathering.
   Johnny Lynch, owner of the Gallery and also an alderman for the Town of Unicoi, told the group he had tried to get them on the agenda for the monthly town meeting scheduled for Monday night so they could voice their concerns, "but I was thwarted on every attempt. They canceled the city meeting Monday for lack of an agenda," Lynch said.
   "I've had all kinds of different things thrown at me to try to stop me on this. I've had, I guess, a threat, if you will, that if we didn't stop trying to stop this industry from coming in, that they were going to do away with the Town of Unicoi and start a move to unincorporate," he said.
   Why? Because if they were to do away with the Town of Unicoi, "they would do away with our planning commission and our Board of Mayor and Aldermen, which is one of the obstacles in front of these folks as they try to move into this county," he said.
   It has been confirmed that a consortium known as Louisiana Energy Services, or LES, has set its sights on a tract of more than 100 acres on Tinker Road to build the first gas centrifuge plant of its kind in the United States.
   LES, made up of major utility companies such as Exelon and Duke Energy, along with Louisiana Light & Power, Fluor Daniel, and Urenco -- sole competitor against U.S. Enrichment Corp. of Bethesda, Md., in the import of low-enriched uranium into the United States -- apparently began talks with Unicoi County officials three to four months ago, according to Lynch.
   "We didn't find out about this until just a couple of weeks ago," he said, referring to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. "They kept it from us."
   Lynch said the mayor is in regular attendance at meetings of the Economic Development Board, where the proposed LES plant was discussed. "So I've got a real bone to pick with the mayor for keeping that information from the rest of the aldermen.
   "Evidently, what it seems they're trying to do is keep us from being heard. I'm thinking that's their plan: to not let this company know that there is opposition out here to this thing," he said.
   The LES partnership intends to use Urenco gas centrifuge technology currently operating at three plants in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Germany at its proposed uranium enrichment plant.
   Paul Monk, county executive, and Rep. Zane Whitson claim the facility is a cure for the county's economic ills. Monk said recently that LES has the potential to create tax revenues which could reverse three years of budget cuts affecting the county's 2,480 public school students. Whitson estimates the plant could increase Unicoi County's property tax by $9 million.
   Some of the local citizenry and experts called upon to speak at Tuesday night's three-hour-long meeting thought otherwise.
   Steven Sykes of Reedy & Sykes Architects in Elizabethton and Dr. Ed Stead of East Tennessee State University College of Business, said they are still trying to figure out the multiplier used to come up with the monetary benefits set out in a press release issued by Monk's office.
   Dr. Dave Close, professor and chairman of physics at ETSU, discounted the theory that there would be no adverse environmental impact if the facility was built within the community.
   One resident questioned whether having another uranium-handling facility close by would make the area an even larger target for terrorists.
   "Just paint a big bulls-eye around Unicoi," another responded.
   Tom Dennison challenged a claim that the industry would create a lot of high-paying jobs in Unicoi County, while Frances Lamberts of the League of Women Voters, said a contact person in Germany told her that Urenco "was very good at promising a lot of jobs. He said they had [been] promised 1,000 jobs. After construction, 180 people are employed and he said most of the jobs are lower-paying."
   Dr. Stead said building the gas centrifuge facility boils down to one simple economic assumption: "Is there a market for the fuel they would be producing?"
   Newspaper and magazines have indicated there is going to be a growth in nuclear power plants in the United States, Stead said. "But from everything I know right now, that's just a very shaky assumption."
   U.S. Enrichment, in a letter posted Monday on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Website, also questioned the need for more enrichment services in the United States and asked the NRC to make LES back up its application for the new facility with proof of need.
   Stead said it also appears that the multiplier used to develop statistics on jobs and increased revenues is "a much higher multiplier than is typical for this region."
   Stead, who has conducted research in Homer, La., and who attended LSU, said, "If the people in Louisiana can turn this plant down, we can turn them down here." In 1989, LES canceled plans to build a gas centrifuge facility in Homer following seven years of challenges.
   "All we have to do is keep plugging away and chipping away and making them spend money, because when they start spending too much money, they're going to pack up and they're going to leave. ... And to heck with the Board of Mayor and Aldermen!" Stead said, to rousing applause.
   "The Board of Mayor and Aldermen has ostrich dynamics. When you see their head in the sand, you've got to realize what's sticking up in the air," he said.
   Sykes told the group that if the property owners developed their own businesses on the Tinker Road site, "it's going to provide jobs for the people of Unicoi County" and the profits will be returned to the county, rather than some town in Germany.
   Sykes said that through the years his office building in Elizabethton has been "a grocery store, a farm store, a shoe store, it's been an office supply store. Time after time, that property has been used and redeveloped ... and it's helped the citizens."
   If an enrichment plant comes and goes, he said, "All we have left of that factory is a Superfund site."
   Dr. Close told the group that from an environmental standpoint, the uranium the company would handle would not be as big a concern as the heavy metals that would be produced. Another problem, he said, "is there is an enormous amount of waste."