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23. The Scheme to Privatize the Hanford Nuke Plant

Source: COUNTERPUNCH Title: “Clinton Crowd Said Yea! Plot to ‘Cure AIDS,’ Make H-Bombs and $5 Billion,” Date: April 1997, Authors: Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn

SSU Censored Researchers Susan Allen
SSU Staff Evaluator: Charles Fox

A consortium of energy contractors plotted to gain control of the Fast Flux Facility at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, convert it to tritium production for H-bombs, and profit to the tune of billions. The Hanford Fast Flux, sitting at the heart of a radioactive wasteland in eastern Washington State, was scheduled for decommissioning. But the government’s emphasis on privatizing public facilities—promoted under Vice President Gore’s program for “reinventing government”—made it a tempting target for profit.

Contemplating the shutdown and the potential for profit, the consortium of about a dozen large corporate contractors at Hanford (including Westinghouse, Lockheed, Batelle, Bechtel, TRW Environmental, Fluor, and Informatics) actively lobbied to have the Fast Flux transferred to the consortium and retooled for tritium production at taxpayer expense. Tritium—the substance needed to put the “oomph” into an H-bomb—could earn profits of $4 to $5 billion a year for the consortium.

Sales to the U.S. government were to be the major source of profit, since tritium has a half-life of only 12.3 years and must be regularly replaced. But the consortium recognized that approval would be hard to obtain as the Department of Energy (DOE) had already selected two other facilities as the primary future providers of tritium. Approval of a “tritium-only” plan at the Hanford site was sure to fail unless a new strategy was developed.

At a November 20, 1995 meeting in Washington, DC, representatives of the consortium met with Washington congressional delegation staffers, Terry R. Lash, director of the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and Richard Thompson, a Democratic wheeler dealer/entrepreneur who was impresario of the conclave. Thompson suggested that they should be “riding the AIDS cure bandwagon,” and outlined a plan to promote Hanford as the last American producer of medical isotopes to be used in AIDS and cancer research.

The Hanford consortium then faced the delicate task of convincing the DOE they needed to be paid for making tritium in order to finance the future production of medical isotopes. Negotiations in Washington began by labeling Hanford an “interim” tritium project. To sell this idea to the White House, the consortium launched lobbying and PR campaigns, hiring Hugh Rodham, Hillary Clinton’s brother, to lobby on their behalf, and making campaign donations to insure access to the President, who gave “thumbs up” to the proposal during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. One of Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary’s last acts before leaving the DOE for a position on the board of directors of a major energy company was to approve Hanford’s role as a potential site for tritium production.

Fatefully, when the consortium moved to the next step—arranging for financing and plutonium fuel rods supplies—they turned to Randall Bonebrake, then an employee at Advanced Nuclear Medicine Systems. Bonebrake states that when placed in contact with European sources of supply, he suddenly found himself “…in the center of an international market in nuclear waste. It was bizarre and frightening.” He stated he woke up to the fact that he was involved in what appeared to be a conspiracy to breach the International Atomic Energy Treaty, which forbids trade in commercial nuclear fuel for the production of nuclear weapons.

Carrying internal documents from Thompson and the DOE, Bonebrake first approached the IRS in Seattle. He was told there was nothing they could do and they recommended he approach The Seattle Times. Instead, Bonebrake turned to Greenpeace, who counseled leaking the affair to the media and seeking some protection of his status as whistleblower by unburdening himself to the Government Accountability Project. When Bonebrake learned that Thompson was about to sign a contract with the DOE commencing privatization of the Fast Flux, he leaked the news report to the German weekly, Der Spiegel, thus raising alarm in Europe and blocking the shipments of fuel rods from Europe.

At the time of the article, the Fast Flux remained on “hot standby” and had not been decommissioned.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR JEFF ST. CLAIM: “Our story shows how easy it is for a group of venture capitalists to get their hands on government nuclear reactors capable of making fuel for hydrogen bombs. Taking advantage of the wide-spread privatization of DOE sites and some slick public-relations work, a small company from Ellensberg, Washington was nearly awarded title to the Fast Flux Breeder Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington State. Though the deal ultimately collapsed (after it was exposed in CounterPunch), the firm, Advanced Nuclear Medicine Systems (ANMS), successfully persuaded the DOE to keep the Fast Flux in ‘hot stand by’ as a possible source of tritium production rather than being shut down as advised by DOE staffers. The DOE is currently searching for another company to take over operations of the Fast Flux.

“One of the key sources for our story was a former employee of ANMS by the name of Randall Bonebrake. Bonebrake left ANMS when he discovered that the company’s professed intention to operate the Fast Flux in order to produce radioactive isotopes to treat AIDS and cancer patients was a ruse to hide the company’s real objective: production of tritium for hydrogen bombs. Bonebrake turned over ANMS papers to Greenpeace, the Government Accountability Project, and CounterPunch. He was later arrested for theft. After our story ran, Bonebrake’s trial ended in a hung jury and the prosecutors decided not to retry the case.

“The story was largely ignored by the mainstream press, although it received quite a bit of attention from public radio. We did interviews for stations in Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; and Moscow, Idaho. The combination of our story and the radio coverage was cited as a major factor in ANMS’s decision to withdraw its proposal, according to Bill Sykes, the company’s president, who complained that his company had been ‘tarred by bad publicity.’ The privatization of DOE sites, many of them highly toxic, remains one of the great uncovered stories in America.”

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