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Don't sell uranium plants

Back in the 1970s the Nixon and Ford administrations sought to transfer the US government-owned uranium enrichment business to private industry. In both instances Congress blocked the proposals, in large part out of concern about the risks of nuclear proliferation. Now the Reagan administration, according to an administration document released to the press by Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum, is once again considering the same proposal - i.e.,turning the government's nuclear enrichment industry over to private firms.

The new proposal should be rejected as decisively as the ones in the 1970s.

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The government now owns three processing plants, all under contract to private industry: at Portsmouth, Ohio; Paducah, Ky.; Oak Ridge, Tenn. Since the the US has ample capacity at the three plants plus a large stockpile of enriched uranium, there would seem to be little justification for seeking new ways to boost output - as would presumably be the rationale for transferring ownership to private firms. Granted, there are now more stringent laws pertaining to the export of nuclear materials than was the case in the early 1970s. On the other hand, one can easily envision a situation in which transfer of enrichment plants to private firms would be followed by requests to ''ease up'' on federal regulations restricting export sales. Private industry, after all, is geared to production - creating a new market for its product. Yet, in the case of technology as sensitive as that involving nuclear materials which can be used for weapons as well as for electric power and research, it would seem wise for the government to retain absolute ownership of production. The US has had a longstanding policy of seeking to curb nuclear proliferation.

In 1975 it was proposed that a multinational consortium (in which Bechtel was the principal US firm) take over the government's nuclear technology. The plan also envisioned $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for a new plant. It is the factor of high-cost - with the government likely having to provide sizable loan guarantees to firms - which would probably be the stumbling block to any effort to effect such a transfer during this period of budget deficits.

In the long run, however, it is the issue of proliferation that remains crucial. Turning over the government's nuclear enrichment industry to private firms could prove dangerously short-sighted. It ought to be resisted.

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