Louisiana Energy Services
(LES) is a consortium of some of the biggest companies in the nuclear power
field. LES exists solely to build a new uranium enrichment plant in the United States to supply enriched uranium for commercial atomic
In 1989, LES announced plans to build such a plant
near the small town of Homer, Louisiana,
next to two poor, predominately African-African communities. Facing strong
opposition from the local residents, and following an unprecedented legal
ruling from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission which found that the siting of the plant constituted environmental racism, LES
withdrew its application in 1997.
Now, in 2002, LES is back, again searching for a
poor, rural community to bear the brunt of its nuclear expansionist plans.
THE LES CONSORTIUM
LES is led by the European
firm Urenco, which is itself a consortium composed of
British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd.; the Dutch government; and several German nuclear
companies. Urenco operates three similar uranium
enrichment plants in Europe, at Capenhurst, England; Almelo, Holland;
and Gronau, Germany.
The new version of LES has several different
partners, three of them nuclear utilities. These include Illinois-based Exelon, the nation’s (and, combined with its partner British
Energy, the world’s) largest nuclear utility; Duke Power, a North Carolina-based
nuclear utility; and the Entergy Corporation, which operates nuclear reactors
in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, New York and is currently attempting to
purchase a reactor in Vermont.
LES partners include the Canadian uranium mining and processing firm Cameco and Westinghouse, which, unlike the U.S. media giant that owns CBS, is owned by British
Nuclear Fuels and is the world’s largest manufacturer of nuclear reactors.
Duke Power and Entergy Corp. are the only two of
these partners involved in the original LES consortium.
Financial documents on LES probably will not be made
available unless and until the company applies for a license application from
the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Although the make-up of LES is
different than it was in 1989, the basic concept behind the corporation is
likely the same.
Under this concept, LES would be a Limited Liability
Corporation. Each of its partners would establish a new subsidiary, which would
be the actual owners of LES, thereby shielding the assets of the parent companies
from any liability associated with building, operating, or decommissioning the
LES facility. Each of the partners would put in a relatively small amount of
money for the project, based on their shares of the LES company;
to actually build the plant, LES is likely to try to raise money from other
In the early 1990s, LES partners Duke Power and
Northern States Power (NSP is not a
partner of the current LES) attempted to recoup their investments in LES from
their states’ electric ratepayers, but were denied such recovery from their
states’ Public Utility Commissions, leading both utilities to state that they
would leave the project once the construction stage of the plant began—a stage
that never occurred.
LES AND PLANT SITING
LES’ history is one of
targeting rural, relatively poor communities that the company believes will not
provide substantial opposition to its plans, or will prove powerless to
effectively counteract its plans.
LES typically operates secretively, first surveying
locations for appropriateness for a uranium enrichment plant (it must be
located in areas of low seismicity, for example) and
for availability of land. It then contacts local industrial development
boosters and elected officials whom it perceives as sympathetic to its goals.
If it receives a positive response, only then does LES publicly announce its
In 1989, LES claimed to have searched for sites in
several states within a 600-mile radius of the key uranium processing plant in
Metropolis, Illinois—which provides the raw material for LES’ operations,
along with another plant in Ontario, Canada. But subsequent court documents and depositions made
clear that LES, which had sought and received the active backing of then-Senate
Energy Committee Chairman J. Bennett Johnston, actively looked primarily at
sites in northern Louisiana, Johnston’s
LES said it had narrowed its search to the land it
purchased near Homer, LA because this was the best place in the country to site
such a plant. As was revealed before an NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board,
the site was chosen over another simply because the homes near one possible
site were well-manicured and appeared prosperous, while the homes near the
chosen site were smaller, in worse repair, and appeared much poorer.
homes were the African-American communities of Center Springs and Forest Grove,
and this testimony was a major reason why LES was found to have violated a
Presidential order outlawing environmental racism.
LES may have thought these small, poor communities would
prove incapable of stopping a major industrial project like a uranium enrichment
plant, but people there formed a tenacious multi-racial organization called
Citizens Against Nuclear Trash (CANT) and, over eight years, including 5 ½
years of legal hearings before the NRC’s Atomic
Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB, a judicial body), CANT firmly opposed LES. In
the end, LES became the first, and only, entity ever denied a license by the
NRC. Although LES won appeals of several of the ASLB decisions, including one
challenging the company’s finances and its plans for decommissioning and
storage of the huge amounts of radioactive and hazardous waste it would generate,
it finally gave up when it realized it was unlikely to prevail on the
environmental justice issue.
CANT proved that local citizens organized in their
own best interests, helped by national organizations like NIRS, Earthjustice, Greenpeace and others, can effectively
protect their communities against even the largest nuclear corporations.
More recently, in August 2002, LES was considering
locating in Unicoi County, in eastern Tennessee, near the existing Nuclear Fuel Services facility.
But LES quickly changed its mind when community residents began weekly
organizing meetings and held vocal protests against LES.
In September 2002, LES announced that it had narrowed
its search to two possible sites, both near abandoned nuclear reactor construction
sites owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). One site is near Hartsville, Tennessee, in the central part of the state; the other in
northern Alabama, at Bellefonte, near Scottsboro.
However, NIRS has learned (September 4, 2002) that
elected officials and community leaders in the Scottsboro area have decided not
to allow LES into their community, and have withdrawn their interest in the
There also have been stirrings of opposition in the
Hartsville area, a poor rural county of about 8,000 people. Should LES not be welcome
at this location, a new site selection process is likely, probably still focusing
on the southeastern United States. The Wilmington, NC, Lynchburg, VA, and Columbia, SC areas all have been mentioned as possible LES sites,
since they are near existing nuclear fuel fabrication plants.
LES AND JOBS
LES targets small, relatively
poor rural communities not only because it requires large, inexpensive land areas,
but because it believes its biggest selling feature is jobs.
However, a closer examination reveals that there are
few employment benefits to such communities from LES.
The biggest job impact from LES would be a relatively
short (3 years or so) construction period. This would require about 400 jobs.
In Louisiana, LES acknowledged that its job search area would
cover 18 counties in three states—leaving people near Homer scant chance of
obtaining a significant number of jobs.
On a permanent basis, an LES plant would require only
2-250 full-time employees. About 70 of these would be highly-skilled nuclear
workers, which few rural communities can boast of having. People for these
jobs, the highest-paying at an LES site, would be brought in from all over the U.S. and Europe, since there are relatively few people with expertise
in LES technology.
The remainder of the 125-150 or so jobs would be
primarily security guards, janitors, clerical personnel and routine maintenance
workers. Because the LES centrifuge process is highly technical, and highly
classified, there would be little chance for advancement for these workers.
An LES plant has, according to LES’ own materials, a
lifespan of 20-50 years. At that point, the plant must be decommissioned and
its centrifuges completely dismantled (and likely melted) so as not to give
away its classified technology. Thus, unlike some industrial enterprises which
may last a century or more, LES is only a temporary facility, one which may
leave behind much more than it contributes.
LES AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The major effect an LES plant
would have on the environment is the enormous amount of waste products it
generates. This waste is composed of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), and is
sometimes known as “depleted uranium.” It is composed of uranium and hydrogen
fluoride. It is mildly radioactive (but remains so for millions of years) and
is also highly toxic and corrosive. The size plant LES wanted to build in Louisiana would have created about 200 14-ton canisters of this
waste per year (some reports suggest LES now wants to build a plant twice that
Unfortunately, there is no place in the United States to put this toxic waste. Because of its high volume
and low radioactivity, it is not treated as “high-level” nuclear waste. Because
of its extremely long hazardous life, it is not eligible to be disposed of as
“low-level” nuclear waste, which has only a 500-year oversight period. And
because of its huge volume, it is not treated as the mixed radioactive/hazardous
waste that it is—costs for disposal of such material (some $15,000 per cubic
foot) would be prohibitive.
The U.S already has some 450,000 tons (nearly 1
Billion pounds!) of UF6 waste piled up at existing or closed uranium enrichment
plants at Oak Ridge, TN; Paducah, KY; and Portsmouth, OH. While there is a small market for this material to
create armor-piercing ammunition and ballasts for some planes and ships, these
increasingly controversial uses of the material do not even make a dent in the
backlog. Thus, the UF6 waste LES would create likely would remain onsite indefinitely.
Any uranium enrichment plant such as the one proposed
by LES also has other effects on the environment. Air and water emissions of radioactive
and hazardous materials are generally small during normal operations, but not
non-existent. And while LES under normal operations likely would comply with
federal annual emissions guidelines, these regulations fail to take into
account the long-lived nature of the radioactive uranium which LES enriches.
For example, in the Louisiana case, LES water emissions would have gone into a
small holding pond onsite. However, this pond fed into a stream, which fed into
a nearby man-made lake, created for recreational and, ultimately, drinking
water. While its annual emissions would have been within the federal
guidelines, the cumulative effect of such emissions could have prevented the
lake from meeting Safe Drinking Water standards.
THE NUCLEAR FUEL CHAIN
At this point, it may be
helpful to understand the nuclear fuel chain, and the unique properties of Uranium
Uranium enrichment is one of several steps required
to create fuel for nuclear power reactors, as well as atomic weapons.
First, uranium must be mined, much like coal. This
raw material is then taken to a facility to be milled, or ground into
“yellowcake.” This yellowcake is then transported to another facility, where it
is processed into a gaseous form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). This is cooled
into a solid, and then transported to a uranium enrichment facility—the proposed
LES plant—where the UF6 is again turned into a gas, and the uranium is brought
from a concentration of less than 1% to about 5%, in a much smaller body of
material (for nuclear weapons, it is brought to an 80-90% concentration, which
is known as highly-enriched uranium).
This enriched uranium is sent to a fuel fabrication
facility, where it is turned into small pellets placed into long fuel rods for
use in commercial nuclear reactors. The waste material at the uranium enrichment
plant is nearly 100% of the original UF6, less some of the uranium, which has
been essentially “siphoned off” to be sent to the fuel fabrication factory.
The fuel rods are then shipped to the nuclear
reactors, where they are used for 12-18 months, and then removed as
“high-level” nuclear waste—perhaps the most lethal substance known to mankind.
This is the raw ingredient
used at a uranium enrichment facility, and is also the waste product from the
facility. It is mildly radioactive and highly toxic and corrosive.
When transported and stored, it is normally in a
solid state; during the enrichment process, it is converted into a gas. It is
most dangerous in a gaseous state, which comes about in the plant through
spinning it through thousands of highly-calibrated centrifuges, but can also
accidentally occur through exposure to heat. To place it in cylinders for transportation
and/or waste storage, it must be in a gaseous form, which poses risks to plant
workers and nearby residents.
In 1985, an accident at the Sequoyah Nuclear Fuels
facility in Oklahoma killed one person and injured several others due to
their exposure to gaseous UF6.
According to the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health, people should “avoid all contact!” with UF6. The material “decomposes
on heating producing toxic fumes of hydrogen fluoride….reacts violently with
water and ethanol….attacks many metals forming flammable/explosive gas….attacks
plastic, rubber and coatings.” NIOSH adds, “exposure
at low level may result in death.”
Fire at a UF6 storage site, such as would exist at an
LES plant, is a major concern for public safety and health, since a fire would
turn the material into a gaseous form, could explode corroded storage
cylinders, and it cannot be put out with traditional firefighting means such as
water—that would only make matters worse.
LES AND TRANSPORTATION
When one recognizes how many
cylinders of radioactive/hazardous UF6 waste an LES plant would produce, one
can understand that an equal amount of this material would be shipped into an
LES facility—some 200-400 14-ton cylinders per year, or at least one every
workday, perhaps more.
The sites LES has chosen, both in Louisiana and more recently in Tennessee and Alabama, are accessible only by secondary roads, normally
two-lane roads not usually thought of as appropriate for transport of large
amounts of hazardous material.
Such roads increase the chances of accident, yet LES
so far has not indicated a willingness to pay for major road improvements,
which might benefit a community in other ways as well.
A traffic accident that caused a fire would be of
most concern, since such an accident could cause release of UF6 in its gaseous
form, endangering nearby residents. Such an accident could occur with, for
example, another truck carrying gasoline or other flammable material, or even
with a passenger car traveling at a high rate of speed.
LES AND ACCIDENTS
It is difficult, but not
impossible, to postulate a serious accident at the LES facility during normal
operation. Most likely, an accident would occur when emptying or filling a
cylinder, when the UF6 is in a gaseous form. Such an accident could cause a release
of this gas, endangering the health and lives of nearby residents. While communities
can argue that emergency planning measures and adequate medical and other
emergency response facilities be in place, the NRC
does not require such precautions for licensing of an LES-type plant.
Other accidents could occur by fire, floods, or other
LES AND SECURITY
An LES uranium enrichment
plant poses a national security risk on several levels.
First is the obvious potential for such a plant to be
a target for terrorists or other enemies.
A successful terrorist attack on a uranium enrichment
plant, especially one that has accumulated a substantial inventory of UF6
casks, could result in the release of a large amount of UF6 into the local
region. Further, it could damage the enrichment facility itself, causing disruption
of fuel supplies to nuclear reactors, and, depending on the function of the
plant, to nuclear weapons.
Transport of UF6 to and from the uranium enrichment
plant could provide terrorists with a ready-made “dirty bomb,” a target that
would provide significant local damage if successfully breached, as well as
wider-spread panic and fear.
LES AND NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION
Urenco, the lead partner in LES, has a poor record in
preventing its highly-classified centrifuge enrichment process from falling
into the wrong hands.
Indeed, Pakistan’s successful nuclear weapons program owes much to Urenco—a Pakistani engineer infiltrated Urenco
and apparently stole the company’s blueprints, enabling that country to produce
its own enriched uranium for use in its atomic weapons.
More recently, concern over Iraq’s potential nuclear capability stems primarily from
the revelation that Iraq in the early 1990s was found to be attempting to
build uranium enrichment centrifuges based on Urenco
designs. It is not known how Iraq obtained this information. The U.S. House of
Representatives has held hearings on this issue, and the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper ran an excellent series explaining
this little-known aspect of Urenco’s record.
Approval of a Urenco uranium enrichment facility could damage U.S. efforts to encourage the destruction of nuclear
weapons owned by Russia. Currently, a program exists where highly-enriched uranium from the dismantlement
of Russian nuclear weapons is “downblended” in order
to create nuclear reactor fuel. This process is overseen by the U.S. Enrichment
Corporation (USEC), a private company that has taken title to former Department
of Energy enrichment properties. USEC is seeking approval to build its own
centrifuge enrichment plant, to replace its older, existing plants. It is
unlikely, as a foreign-dominated entity, that LES could obtain U.S. government approval to participate in this program to
reduce the threat of Russian nuclear weapons.
touches on some of the many controversial issues surrounding LES, Urenco, and uranium enrichment generally. It does not cover
such key issues as whether a new uranium enrichment plant is even needed, nor
whether the involvement of utilities such as Exelon,
Entergy and Duke Power means that these companies seek to build new atomic reactors
in the U.S.—indeed, Exelon and Entergy have both
publicly expressed interest in doing so—which would resurrect a nuclear era
that effectively ended in the 1970s.
--Michael Mariotte, Nuclear Information and Resource
Service, September 9,
WISE-Uranium. This website contains massive documentation and information about the
entire nuclear fuel cycle, the hazards of UF6 and links to government and other
sources of information. www.antenna.nl/wise/uranium/index.html
This website, put up by citizens of Unicoi Count, TN, is a good place for the most current information
about LES. Citizens in Unicoi County chased LES away based just on rumors LES might locate
Nuclear Information and Resource Service, 1424 16th Street NW, #404, Washington, DC
20036, 202-328-0002; fax: 202-462-2183; www.nirs.org,
This international organization
assists local communities in fighting unnecessary and dangerous nuclear
projects. NIRS played a major role in stopping the LES proposal to build a
uranium enrichment plant in Louisiana.