British firm risks environment damage with 'unsafe' plant in US

Britain is involved in a plan to build a $1.2bn (£0.6bn) uranium enrichment facility in the New Mexico desert, defying calls from the UN's nuclear watchdog for a five-year moratorium on such facilities.

A consortium led by a company one third-owned by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is looking to develop the plant close to the city of Eunice. Campaigners say the project risks polluting the environment, using scarce water resources and creating many tons of nuclear waste. They also say Urenco - the British-Dutch-German company heading the consortium - was previously involved in the largest leak of nuclear technology in history and there has been insufficient investigation to ensure such a leak is not repeated.

But most local people and many politicians have welcomed the project saying it will provide decent paying jobs in an economically depressed area. With the oil and gas industry no longer providing the jobs once offered, unemployment in the area south-east of Roswell is up and people are leaving the area.

"We have to have something else or communities like Eunice will just disappear," said the city's mayor, James Brown. "The oil industry won't be able to support our economy 20 or 30 years from now."

Republican Senator Pete Domenici, who has long lobbied to lure such a plant to New Mexico, said: "There are no downsides."

The enrichment facility which is going through a public consultation stage has been proposed by a consortium called the Louisiana Energy Project (LES), that is 70 per cent controlled by Urenco. If it is built, it would be the first privately operated enrichment plant in the US and the first to use centrifuge technology, rather than an older process known as gaseous diffusion.

LES wanted to build the project in rural Louisiana, but backed out in 1998 after opponents accused it of targeting a predominantly poor and black community. Then it withdrew from a similar proposal in Hartsville, Tennessee, in 2003 after running into opposition from the former vice president Al Gore.

The latest site proposed by LES is in the flat, scrub-covered desert 340 miles from Albuquerque in the south-eastern corner of the state, close to Texas. LES has promised the plant will employ 400 workers during the construction phase and, once it is up and running, 210 people, with a payroll of more than $10m.

But campaigners are trying to give LES a bloody nose. The Sierra Club, a US environmental group, said a rogue Pakistani scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, was working for a firm contracted to Urenco when he stole secrets and sold them to Pakistan, Libya, North Korea and Iran. Marilyn Snell, editor of the group's magazine, Sierra, said the US Department of Energy had failed to conduct a thorough security review.

LES declined to comment. Urenco said it always managed its security "in strict accordance with national and international security regulations".