France wields clout on Tennessee, U.S. nukes

Monday, August 18, 2008

Electricity ratepayers' dollars in Tennessee as well as federal tax money are increasingly going to a company owned largely by the French government: the nuclear power conglomerate AREVA.

The company holds U.S. Department of Energy contracts for nuclear-related projects at major facilities such as Hanford, Wash., and Yucca Mountain, Nev., and others, including in Erwin, Tenn., and Aiken, S.C.

Tennessee Valley Authority officials last week confirmed that over the last few years the agency has awarded at least $239.2 million in contracts to AREVA for services that include furnishing radioactive fuel to its nuclear plants and for plant repairs. Of the more than 65,000 AREVA jobs worldwide, about 5,300 are in this country. The French concern has spent $7.9 million on lobbying since 1998.

Critics say the U.S. should be leery of the French sales pitch.

"They're becoming the number one nuclear power sales force around the world with the president of France being the number one salesman," said Argun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in Takoma Park, Md.

"They operate their nuclear system by fiat. They haven't solved the problem of nuclear waste. They just go around telling people they recycle plutonium, but plutonium is 1 percent of the nuclear waste."

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., gives another, more positive, view. And that is particularly true about the French claim that they can reprocess waste safely and economically.

"I have people from France come in and see me all the time and say, 'Bob Corker, what are y'all doing? You have so much nuclear waste in this country and yet you could easily reutilize that in a safe way like we're doing in France.' "

He was speaking recently at Belmont University, where he was promoting a bill, called the New Energy Act of 2008, proposed by five Democrat and five Republican senators. It calls for the funding of a variety of energy sources, including money to encourage nuclear power projects. Part of the funding would go toward advancing the highly controversial nuclear waste reprocessing.

"There's so much waste," Corker said. "We could reduce the amount of waste by 90 percent by reprocessing in appropriate ways."

Makhijani, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering, called that percentage incorrect and said the French sales pitch is misleading because much of the reprocessed uranium can't be reused and new wastes are created in the process. Wastes continue to accumulate at the French reprocessing site.

"They don't understand the French system," he said.

The French government owns about 90 percent of AREVA, which bills itself as the only company in the world involved in every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Uranium leaked, spilled
The company, which had sales revenues of more than $17 billion last year, has operations that mine uranium, turn it into yellowcake to be processed for power plants, reprocess spent fuel and transport radioactive materials. It and its subsidiaries build and maintain nuclear plants, including ones that use a plutonium mix fuel that is being protested in this country and abroad. AREVA can be found at work in countries worldwide, including Turkey, Brazil, Kazakhstan and China.

Last month, two incidents of accidentally released uranium at AREVA subsidiaries in France — one a long-term leak and the other a spill — brought an international outcry. Use of a local river for recreation and drinking water was halted for two weeks near the waste treatment facility where the spill occurred.

"These things happen from time to time," said Jarret Adams, a spokesman in the company's Maryland office. "Our people have responded to them quickly."

The company, which didn't detect the spill for several hours, failed to immediately notify local and national authorities after the discovery, according to a report by Nucleonics Week, which publishes news and analysis about the commercial nuclear power business. A plant manager was later removed from his job.
U.S. is 'lucrative market'
The Bush Administration and Congress have approved billions of dollars in funding to encourage and reduce the risk for companies to build new nuclear power plants, partly as a cleaner option than coal-burning electricity plants.

Anti-nuclear factions contend there are better options that don't produce the dangerous, ever-accumulating waste. One activist, Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, argues that turning tax dollars over to AREVA is a slippery slope compared with putting money into wind and alternative energy sources that would bring new market development, jobs and more energy independence.

Another reason for increased interest in American facilities is that reprocessing contracts have been drying up in Europe, said Olson, who directs the southeastern chapter of her organization from her home in Asheville, N.C.

"France is running around the United States bidding on things," she said. "We have subsidies here. It's basically socializing nuclear things, and France is all about that."

Adams says that is not the case. But he readily concedes that the U.S. is a "lucrative market for AREVA."

"There's ample evidence to support the idea that there's a nuclear renaissance going on in the U.S., and AREVA sees that as an opportunity," he said.
TVA: Everybody benefits
Part of the fuel that AREVA sells TVA for its nuclear plants is a diluted blend of highly enriched uranium that is surplus from the U.S. defense program. TVA's Francis said the U.S. Department of Energy benefits by reducing its stockpile and TVA gets fuel at a cheaper rate. The rest of what is used to generate electricity at TVA's three nuclear power plants comes from the German company Nukem and the Canadian company Cameco.

"The marketplace is international," Francis said. "There are countries overseas that use U.S. goods and services."

TVA officials said that they could not provide information last week about contracts with AREVA beyond three that totaled $239.2 million, because the information was filed in different locations and was not easy to pull together.

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