Louisiana Energy Services Seeks to Circumvent Public Involvement in Uranium Enrichment Plant Licensing Process
Louisiana Energy Services (LES) has asked the federal 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 LES has proposed to build near Hartsville, Tennessee. The ruling sought by LES, and described as "unique" by one knowledgeable NRC staffer, would prohibit members of the public (including organizations and local and state government bodies) from addressing such issues as environmental justice, the financial qualifications of the LES consortium, the disposition of the thousands of tons of radioactive/hazardous waste the proposed plant would produce, the need for the plant, and others. Not coincidentally, a citizens group in northern Louisiana, Citizens Against Nuclear Trash, successfully stopped LES from building a similar plant there in the 1990s by successfully raising these exact issues before an NRC adjudicatory body.
"Rather than clean up its act and play by the rules," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), "LES is attempting to change the rules so that local people cannot even raise the same type of issues that defeated its last effort to build a dangerous, unnecessary, uneconomic nuclear facility. This smacks of desperation before LES even has submitted a license application. How could the NRC deny the opportunity for people to raise such fundamental issues, when the NRC has not seen even one official word of LES' plans?"
In a September 11, 2002 letter to the NRC, NIRS requested that the agency allow NIRS to comment on the LES proposals, and also requested that the NRC allow a 90-day public comment period so that people in Tennessee also could provide their comments. "The NRC should reject LES' outrageous request out-of-hand," said Mariotte, "but at the very least, they should let the public know what LES is doing, and give the public an opportunity to respond."
The LES request would significantly limit the meaning of the Environmental Impact Statement that must be prepared for any nuclear facility of this size, as well as the opportunity for citizens and government agencies to participate in formal, legal hearings about the plant.
This is not the first time LES has sought to limit public oversight over its activities. In 1989, it convinced then-Senate Energy Committee Chairman J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) to pass legislation allowing foreign ownership of uranium enrichment plants, to bypass the requirement for an Environmental Impact Statement for such a plant, and to end the requirement for adjudicatory—or formal—hearings on such a plant, among other provisions. Their intent then, as it is now, was to attempt to ensure that members of the public could not legally challenge LES' plans. Most of that legislation was scrapped by the U.S. House of Representatives, and an EIS and formal hearings are still required for such a project. This time, realizing that Congress would never approve such legislation, LES is attempting to achieve the same practical goal by circumventing NRC procedures.
LES is a consortium dominated by the European firm Urenco, which is itself a consortium composed of British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd., the Dutch government, and a number of German firms. Urenco operates three uranium enrichment plants in western Europe. Other, minority, members of the LES consortium include three major nuclear power utilities—the Exelon Corporation, Duke Power and the Entergy Corporation. Westinghouse Nuclear (a subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels) and Cameco (a Canadian uranium mining and processing company) also are partners of LES.
While details of the current financial structure of LES are not yet known, and likely will not be made public until a formal license application is submitted, the company is basically a Limited Liability Corporation. Under this structure, each of the partners establishes a new subsidiary, which provides a relatively small amount of financing and owns a fraction of the consortium, thereby shielding the parent corporations from any liability associated with the licensing, operation or decommissioning of the proposed project.
Under the normal NRC process, if citizens or their governments decided to challenge any part of the LES license application, a three-member Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (typically composed of one lawyer and two scientists) would be appointed to hear the disputes. The ASLB acts as a judicial body, and its hearings include rights of discovery, cross-examination, and other legal safeguards. Since the beginning of the nuclear age, only one project ever has been denied a license by an ASLB as a result of such hearings: that project was the LES uranium enrichment plant proposed for the small town of Homer, Louisiana (one other project, the Byron nuclear reactor near Rockford, Illinois, was initially denied a license in 1984, but the denial was later overturned).
NIRS letter to the NRC is available on NIRS' website, www.nirs.org, or via e-mail or fax by request.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) was founded in 1978 to assist grassroots environmental organizations and people concerned about nuclear power, radioactive waste, and sustainable energy issues. NIRS and its affiliate WISE (World Information Service on Energy) have two offices in the United States, and 11 offices in Europe, Asia, and South America.
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