"Rifle Shots" and Nuclear Proliferation
by Mina Hamilton

December 24, 2003

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The news hit the front page of the New York Times: "Inquiry Suggests Pakistanis Sold Nuclear Secrets." The article on December 22, 2003 details how the "father" of the Pakistani bomb passed along nuclear secrets to North Korea and Iran.

Buried deep in the text is this key fact: The leak originated at a uranium enrichment company in the Netherlands called Urenco.

An even more crucial detail missing from the New York Times? Urenco is destined to receive a fat subsidy from the US taxpayers via the Energy Bill that succumbed to a bi-partisan filibuster in November 2003. Don't be fooled. The bill will be back in just a few weeks - in early 2004.

It's all in a "rifle shot" for the Louisiana Energy Services or LES. In Washington lobbyist jargon a "rifle shot" is a provision in a general bill that benefits a single company. In this case, it's a company that enriches uranium for use in commercial nuclear power plants.

Senator John McCain estimates the Energy Bill subsidy to LES is about $500 million to $1 billion. This is small potatoes in a bill the Congressional Budget Office says will provide $50 billion to energy companies over a ten-year period. Yet the LES potatoes are particularly lethal.

Who and what is LES?

Louisiana Energy Services sounds all-American. Not so. It's a multinational conglomerate of dizzying complexity that includes Urenco! This is a consortium of the British and Dutch governments, plus several German and US companies. And yes, this Urenco is the very same company now in the news because of the alarming spread of the top-secret, Urenco nuclear technology around the globe.

Urenco should be on the lips of every TV anchor, every US Senator and Congressperson, every American citizen.

Isn't it amazing? The US taxpayer forks over $150 billion to fight a war whose alleged purpose was to disarm Saddam Hussein. At the same time we're asked to reward a company whose lax security helped an unscrupulous scientist put WMD technology into the tyrant's hands.

The nuclear theft went like this: In 1989, a German scientist, Karl Heinz Schaab, worked for a subsidiary of Urenco. For over $100,000 he sold classified blueprints for the patented Urenco process for enriching uranium to several Iraqis. (Enriched uranium or plutonium is used to make nuclear bombs. Both substances are tightly controlled. If, however, a non-nuclear country learns how to enrich uranium they're on their way to joining the Nuclear Club.)

Urenco's poor security was also taken advantage of by a Pakistani scientist named Abdul Qadeer Khan. While working at the plant in the 1970's he photographed top-secret Urenco blueprints. The photos ended up in Islamabad. Khan, now known as the "father" of the Pakistani bomb, is at the heart of the current investigation of how nuclear secrets landed in North Korea and Iran.

Urenco's defense is cavalier. A LES official, George Byers, quoted in the Oak Ridger said in January 2003, "It's unfortunate, but it's old history." He added we've taken "strong remedial steps." These vague assurances are hardly reassuring.

The LES subsidy is loathsome for other reasons. Currently there is no way to process or place to store the nuclear waste that would be generated by the LES plant. The Energy Bill solution: the Department of Energy will take title to the waste. This means the US taxpayer is left holding the bag.

One critic, Robert Alvarez, Senior Policy Analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, describes the subsidy as "emblematic of the decline of Congress. Instead of Congress serving the public interest, it's serving private, corporate interests."

Another kicker in the LES subsidy: A new uranium enrichment plant is not necessary. Why? There's a glut of enriched uranium in the world and in the US. All we need to do is remove the highly enriched uranium from the thousands of old nuclear weapons sitting around at Department of Energy weapons plants. (This uranium can then be treated for use in commercial nuclear power plants.)

Is the Senate in an uproar over the subsidy to LES/Urenco? No. (The give-away was inserted at the last minute by Senator Pete Domenici who, with Congressman "Billy" Tauzin, wrote the Energy Bill virtually in secret.)

Why does Senator Domenici care about LES? The plant is destined for Senator Domenici's home state, New Mexico!

Citizens in Louisiana and Tennessee previously nixed the plant. But Energy Bill author Domenici is determined to undercut any future community opposition. He has gutted the licensing process.

Michael Mariotte, Director, of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, comments, "Senator Domenici and LES seem determined to avoid the public scrutiny that already caused LES to fail in two states."

Mariotte adds, "It's been proven that the more people learn about this project the less they like it."

The big question: Will US voters leave the LES/Urenco "rifle shot" unchallenged?

Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She is a Research Associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates. Citizens interested in more information on the LES/Urenco scandal should contact NIRS.org and Public Citizen. Also citizens are urged to write their Senators and Congressmen urging that the LES/Urenco subsidy in Section 637 be axed from the Energy Bill. Mina can be reached at minaham@aol.com.

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