LES request could bar public from raising questions

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Louisiana Energy Services has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a ruling that would bar the public from raising numerous relevant issues in public hearings related to the licensing of a uranium enrichment plant it proposes to build near Hartsville, Tenn., according to Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS).
   NIRS said in a press release issued last week that the ruling sought by LES was described as "unique" by one NRC staffer, and would prohibit members of the public from addressing such issues as environmental justice, financial qualifications of the LES consortium, disposition of thousands of tons of radioactive/hazardous waste, and the need for the plant, among other matters.
   Citizens Against Nuclear Trash, a Louisiana citizens group, successfully stopped LES from building a similar plant in Homer, La., in the 1990s by raising the same issues.
   "Rather than clean up its act and play by the rules," NIRS Executive Director Michael Mariotte said, "LES is attempting to change the rules so that local people cannot even raise the same type of issues that defeated its last effort ... This smacks of desperation before LES even has submitted a license application."
   In a Sept. 11 letter to the NRC, NIRS asked that it be allowed to comment on the LES proposals and also requested a 90-day public comment period. "The NRC should reject LES' outrageous request out-of-hand," Mariotte said, "but at the very least, they should let the public know what LES is doing and give the public an opportunity to respond."
   LES and state officials announced last Monday that the former Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plant site had been chosen for the $1.1 billion gas centrifuge facility.
   George Dials, LES president and chief executive officer, said, "The environmental justice problem was sort of new when the Homer licensing process was going on. It came from the policy decision that President Clinton made about that time that environmental justice had to be included in all decisions on licensing. It sort of snuck up on them a little bit."
   Dials said, however, that LES doesn't foresee any environmental justice issues with Hartsville. "That was one of the criteria we went through. There's a lot more understanding of what that means now than there was when it first came out. We're confident that that will pass the scrutiny of the NRC."
   The next step for LES is to negotiate final purchase of the Hartsville site and get a sales-purchase agreement in place before filing a license application within the next six months, Dials said.
   Environmental studies also must be completed, said Rod Krich of Exelon. "One of the advantages of the Hartsville site is TVA did an environmental evaluation earlier this year when they transferred it to Four Lakes Industrial Development Authority. Some of the environmental work has been done. Because it was a nuclear site previously, there was a lot of environmental documentation in existence already."
   LES will employ about 250 persons full time. During the screening process LES looked at availability of labor and technical confidence levels, according to Dials. "We don't have any doubt that folks in this area of Tennessee are smart enough and competent enough to take these jobs, and we intend to hire as many of them as we can 'locally.' Local means the region. ... We've got good university systems to draw from," he said, citing Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee as examples.
   "We may have a couple of special operational people or maintenance people for these centrifuges come from Europe on a part-time basis until we get the appropriate people trained, [and] we'll probably send a few of the operating folks to Europe to be trained in some of our facilities there," he said.
   Dials, who hails from West Virginia, said he is setting up LES corporate headquarters in Washington "because that's where we need to be to deal with the licensing process. But once we get the license and start building the plant ... we will move the corporate headquarters down here."
   LES also plans to start a "very active public outreach program" in Hartsville within the next few weeks, "staffed by somebody locally who can sort of be our windows and ears," he said. "Then we can distribute information ... and spend some time down here ourselves getting to know the people and working with them.
   "We need to dispel a lot of these myths about what's happening here. We've had all kinds of stories out about highly enriched uranium, weapons-grade stuff, nuclear bombs, nuclear terrorism, high-level waste. That just isn't true about a facility like this. It's a very different kind of nuclear facility than people are even accustomed to thinking about."
   According to the LES president, tailings produced during the process are not waste, but a "byproduct" which is lower in radiation than naturally occurring uranium in the ground. The tailings would be stored onsite temporarily "to see if there are other uses," he said. "Sometimes you can run that back through the system and enrich it. It's not classified as waste right now so there are no disposal requirements. We will maintain it onsite until there is some disposition facility created."
   Another option is for LES to develop its own disposition plan. "That will have to be approved by the NRC before they give us the license," he said.
   At Urenco's facilities in Europe some tailings are stored while others are sent to the Soviet Union to be re-enriched. "Then we can use it as feed [fuel] for our plants," he said.
   The CEO doesn't believe the Hartsville plant will pose a major terrorist threat. "There is not much a terrorist could do to this facility except destroy a billion dollars worth of equipment. They can't do anything with the material if they got it. We've got it stored in these casks which are inside the centrifuges when they're operating. If they got one of them -- it weighs about 40 tons -- what are they going to do with it? It would be a little obvious going down the interstate."
   Dials also said there are safeguards in place to prevent an incident like the one which occurred in the 1980s when employees of a German subcontractor stole some of Urenco's gas centrifuge blueprints and sold them to Iraq. "When there's a renegade in the pile, there's a renegade in the pile," he said.
   "One of the employees from that German company went to jail for the unauthorized sale to a foreign government," Dials said. "The bad news is that, indeed, there was a piece of information that got to them about centrifuge technology that should not have gotten to them, but appropriate actions were taken. ... The fact that the knowledge base may be there [Iraq] is troublesome, but it didn't go directly from Urenco.
   "It's sort of like in the United States: Even with the best safeguards, sometimes you get a traitor that will release information," he said.