January 30 was former U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham’s last day as the non-executive chairman of Areva Enterprises Inc, the French atomic power firm’s American operation. This marked the end of a very lucrative arrangement for both Abraham and the French government own nuclear company – mostly at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.
It all began in the 1990s when the United States’ response to disposing of 34 metric tons of plutonium from shuttered nuclear weapons programs was a proposed mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken, South Carolina. When Abraham became Energy Secretary in 2001, Areva was a key contractor for the MOX plant. According to his DOE calendars, among his first trips were to France to visit their nuclear officials and operations. Abraham maintained a close relationship with the then head of Areva, Anne Lauvergeon. In turn, not long after he left the Energy Department, Abraham cashed in and went to work for Areva and “Atomic Annie,” as she was known. In 2007, DOE broke ground on the MOX plant.
Today, the DOE’s MOX fuel plant is still under construction. It has cost billions of dollars, is over budget and behind schedule. But Spencer Abraham will never be held responsible for the cost overruns and delays. In fact, he has been handsomely rewarded.
Despite spending billions of dollars on the MOX plant, DOE has yet to line up a single customer even with massive government subsidies being offered to buy the fuel. No utility will touch it. DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration has been playing hardball trying to get the Tennessee Valley Authority to use the fuel.
With the MOX plant, Abraham set in motion a program that will create even more high level nuclear waste at SRS with no facility or ability to dispose of it. The need for related facilities that have yet to be built or approved will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost. The plant is supposed to produce the MOX fuel from old nuclear bomb pits. This fuel will be more potent than the MOX made from spent fuel from civilian reactors in France. The support facilities to chemically separate plutonium from other warhead elements will cost hundreds of millions of dollars more. While separation and waste facilities await approval and construction, decrepit, giant, crumbling canyons are kept going to support plutonium disposition at enormous annual costs. To make matters worse, the waste from these processes all add to the huge amount of waste already stored in leaking tanks at SRS.
DOE’s MOX plant is the first of its kind with no indication that it will work. Even if it does work and a customer is found, the spent nuclear fuel rods will be more difficult and expensive to store safely.
But the good news for Areva is the tax paid contract is still bringing in the big bucks with no end in sight.
According to the website of The Abraham Group, Abraham started with Areva in 2006. He says he resigned “due to other roles and commitments I have undertaken …I have enjoyed my association with the company and have the highest regard for the management and team at Areva.”
Last year DCBureau published a series of articles about the French-government-owned company and their operations in the United States. At the time, the United States was in the midst of a “nuclear renaissance” and Areva was one of the main beneficiaries. In March, a tsunami swept across the coast of Japan and set in motion a series of events that made the world pause. Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant exploded.
We reported that Areva had fueled the number three reactor with MOX fuel made in France. The hydrogen explosions spewed plutonium over northern Japan. Plutonium, a byproduct of uranium fission, is also an ingredient in MOX fuel. If inhaled, plutonium can cause cancer. It lingers in the environment for thousands of years. It will take generations to address the damage.
Enthusiasm for the nuclear renaissance in the United States and other countries waned after Fukushima, and Areva’s profits collapsed. Atomic Annie was shown the door by the French government and, as she took her leave, the handwriting was on the wall for her American colleague.
For more than 10 years both Abraham and Lauvergeon dined on their governments’ energy dime.
Abraham, like so many others in Washington, sells his influence. His website says:
“During his four years as Secretary of Energy, Secretary Abraham developed a close working relationship with the corporate leadership of energy companies as well as many energy-intensive companies. He launched several important energy studies involving CEOs and other top private sector leaders on many energy issues including nuclear, oil and natural gas, coal, and hydrogen.”
After he worked for former Vice President Dan Quayle, Abraham became a U.S. Senator from his home state of Michigan. (“The Abraham Group will also provide assistance to clients on issues in which Secretary Abraham was a key Senate leader, such as technology, manufacturing and immigration issues.”)
Six years later, in 2000, when he lost reelection, he did not go home. Instead, he became Energy Secretary. When he left the Energy Department in 2005, he did not go home. Instead, he became an executive to one of the contractors he oversaw while Energy Secretary. And now that he is stepping down from Areva, he is not going home. His group, comprised of his stafffrom the Energy Department and Capitol Hill, is signing contracts for new clients.
One association he sells is his relationship with his former Michigan congressional colleague, Fred Upton. Now the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce for the U.S. House of Representatives, Upton is a key energy policy player. Upton and Abraham write opinion pieces together.
And Abraham does not sell influence only in the United States. He sells himself to the entire world.
“Another major focus and specialization of our firm is the international energy sector. The energy business is first and foremost a global market. Our aim is to help our clients enter and operate in the international energy market, whether it is a U.S. energy company doing business in the Middle East or a foreign energy company seeking to enter the U.S. market. We provide valuable insight and help to enhance relationships with key stakeholders to meet the business objectives of our clients.”
When is enough, enough? How much money do former government officials have to make before they go home and give back to their communities rather than take money to influence their friends in Washington? Perhaps if we knew that answer, we could save the American taxpayers money. Instead of drafting ethic laws that become jokes before the ink is dry, perhaps we could just cut to the chase, cut them a check, and make them go home.