March 13, 2003
Environmental Groups Seek Release of Secret NRC Document on Uranium Plant Licensing Policy
Document Will Show How Agency Intends to Handle Public Hearings for Proposed Uranium Enrichment Plant in Tennessee
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two national advocacy groups are seeking the release of a document being withheld by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that will indicate how the agency will handle the licensing and public hearings for a uranium enrichment plant in central Tennessee.
The document contains the commissioners’ response to six “white papers” submitted last spring by Louisiana Energy Services (LES), a private consortium that wants to build the plant. The “white papers” are memos focusing on licensing issues that may be contentious, such as whether the consortium is targeting an economically depressed area and whether the plant is needed. The papers are an attempt to persuade the commissioners to decide how they will handle critical licensing issues before LES submits a license application. Public hearings on similar issues resulted in the denial of a license for a proposed LES plant in Homer, La., in 1997.
Both the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and Public Citizen have submitted comments on the “white papers.” At the urging of NIRS, the NRC invited the public to respond to the memos. The agency has received more than 350 comments, almost all urging the NRC to reject the consortium’s position.
Commissioners have outlined their views on the issues and have informed the agency’s staff, according to the trade publication Inside NRC (March 10, 2003), but they have yet to make their views public.
On March 11, Public Citizen sent a letter to NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, asking that the document be released and that the NRC explain what procedure it would use to license the proposed LES plant. On March 12, NIRS submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the document.
“The public deserves to know if the NRC commissioners have capitulated to the consortium’s unreasonable demands that the agency pre-determine controversial licensing issues, which would make a mockery of the public hearing process,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’ s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.
“LES asked the NRC to rule in its favor before a public hearing on exactly those issues that resulted in the company’s license being denied in Louisiana, including critical issues of environmental justice, disposal of radioactive waste, and whether the plant is even needed—which it’s not,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS. “We intend to sue the NRC if it adopts LES’ positions, so the agency might as well tell us now if it intends to act on behalf of this company or on behalf of the public.”
However, the groups hope that the NRC’s reluctance to release the document may indicate that the agency has decided to rule against LES.
“LES has been looking for a positive signal from the NRC,” Mariotte said. “But the NRC so far isn’t providing that signal. This may be just another blow to the LES project, which is already staggering from its inability to obtain a zoning change in Tennessee and the March 10 withdrawal of the Canadian company Cameco, which held a 20 percent interest in the project, from the LES consortium.”
LES is dominated by the European uranium enrichment firm Urenco, which itself is a consortium composed of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., the Dutch government and various German firms. Other LES partners include Westinghouse (itself a division of BNFL) and three U.S. nuclear utilities: Exelon, Entergy and Duke Power.
LES announced plans in 1989 to build a uranium enrichment plant near Homer. But a local citizens group, Citizens Against Nuclear Trash, aided by NIRS, Earthjustice and others, successfully challenged the consortium’s license application, resulting in the first-ever denial of a license by the NRC.