Nukes: To Pyongyang from Nashville?

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URENCO has been linked to leaks of nuclear enrichment technology to Pakistan

Is President Bush's "axis of evil" campaign about to be undermined in his own backyard? A proposed uranium enrichment facility planned in Hartsville, Tenn. (pop. 2,395) raises just that question. One of the plant's principal backers is URENCO, a European consortium linked to leaks of enrichment technology to, yes, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea — as well as to Pakistan.

Sources tell TIME that senior Bush appointees, upset by the ongoing crisis with North Korea, have held detailed discussions in recent days on the need to stop leaks of nuclear technology to rogue states. "To have this company operate in the U.S. after it was the source of sensitive technology reaching foreign powers does raise serious concerns," a high-level U.S. nuclear security administrator told TIME, the first public comment by a federal official on the proposed plant's ownership. "The national security community or the new Homeland Security Department will need to look at this."

Concerns about URENCO first emerged more than 10 years ago when thousands of centrifuge parts, based on URENCO designs, were discovered by U.N. inspectors in Iraq after the Gulf War. A one-time URENCO scientist, known as the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, is said to have taken URENCO centrifuge blueprints and information on the company's suppliers to his homeland, later passing similar sensitive material to North Korea and Iran.

The company that wants to build the new Tennessee enrichment plant is called Louisiana Energy Services. A consortium of US and foreign companies in which URENCO has a major financial role, LES insists that the link between URENCO and nuclear proliferation is "long ago and far-fetched at this point". URENCO itself has denied authorizing leaks of technology to rogue states.

The only previous attempt by LES to build an enrichment plant involved a multi-year effort in the 1990's targeting a small town in Louisiana. Closed Congressional hearings on Iraqi attempts to acquire nuclear weapons were held not long before, and delved into URENCO's record. Subsequently, powerful Michigan Democrat John Dingell raised concerns that the LES plant in Louisiana might violate provisions governing the movement of classified technology from foreign countries under the federal Atomic Energy Act. That issue was never resolved, but LES gave up attempts to build the Louisiana facility amid controversy over its impact on nearby African-American residents.

With its latest effort in Tennessee, LES seems especially anxious to avoid a reprise of those controversies. In an unusual move, LES has asked for a greenlight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission without the usual public comment on various environmental, safety and security issues. But groups like the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council contend that this will simply, "reduce the . . . licensing procedure to a flimsy rubber stamp." LES plans to file its 3,000 page license application with the federal government by January 30, to be followed by a review process that could take at least a year.

Also controversial are unanswered questions about the disposal of the Tennessee plant's radioactive waste. Officials in Tennessee have reached a tentative agreement with LES to cap the amount of waste and, last week , the company announced that the material would not stay in Tennessee permanently. But it offered no details as to where the waste might be transferred, a process that can be subject to complex federal licensing procedures.

So far few Tennessee politicians have taken a position on the new enrichment plant. That includes Sen. Bill Frist, the new Senate Majority Leader, who has remained neutral on the proposed plant in his home state. But he plans to follow the debate "very closely," says an aide.