AIKEN - In the secretive days of the Cold War, the U.S. went to great lengths to keep the rest of the world from the factories that built its bombs.
That has changed.
Today, foreign corporations work freely at Department of Energy installations that still handle materials once used to build the world's most dangerous weapons. That includes Savannah River Site, where companies with ties to Britain and France have been working for years.
Both countries are considered U.S. allies, but that might not explain entirely how they obtained work while Congress threatened to block a company like Dubai Ports World, a firm based in United Arab Emirates, when it was considered to secure major U.S. seaports.
Critics point out that American subsidiaries of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and AREVA, a French-based energy company, have both employed former high level Energy Department officials, perhaps giving them unfair access to U.S. nuclear markets.
AREVA grabbed a big name earlier this month, when it named Spencer Abraham, federal energy secretary from 2001 until 2005, the chairman of one of its boards of directors.
"You've got to ask, 'What were they doing when they were in public service?'" said Craig Holman, who monitors campaign finance issues for Public Citizen, a watchdog group in Washington D.C.
When asked, company officials said AREVA or one of its subsidiaries won two Energy Department contracts while Mr. Abraham served as secretary.
In 2003, COGEMA Inc., an AREVA subsidiary, and the U.S.-based Bechtel company won a $29.7 million, 4-year contract to design material handling systems at the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste burial site in Nevada.
That same year, Transnuclear Inc., another company affiliated with AREVA, was awarded a contract worth $16 million at the Energy Department's Hanford site in Washington.
Industry observers say it's necessary for foreign companies to employ people like Mr. Abraham to learn about the U.S. system. They defend the use of foreign companies, which they say are filling gaps in the nation's nuclear market that domestic companies can't.
If that's the case, some say, the U.S. is guilty of a double standard. The Dubai Ports World deal, which was halted in part because 9-11 hijackers reportedly lived in United Arab Emirates, was capable of doing the job, they argue.
"They (the French and British) may be an ally today. They may not be an ally tomorrow," said Bob Alvarez, who was a senior policy adviser to the energy secretary from 1993 until 1999.
MR. ALVAREZ and others say Mr. Abraham's appointment to an AREVA board comes at especially opportune time for the company.
The Energy Department under President Bush, who appointed Mr. Abraham, has trumpeted the expansion of nuclear energy, an area of expertise for AREVA, which markets its reactors in the United States.
The department also announced plans this year to potentially spend billions of dollars on the recycling of spent nuclear fuel, a process the U.S. abandoned 30 years ago because some feared the radioactive materials could fall into the wrong hands. It's another area of expertise for AREVA.
Mr. Abraham isn't the only former federal energy official the company has brought on board. UniStar Nuclear, which is pushing AREVA reactors in the states, recently named two former Energy Department leaders and two former Nuclear Regulatory Commission members to its advisory board, according to The Energy Daily, a trade publication.
"These people have known agendas and known access to the current administration, and therefore they give AREVA access and ability to influence policy, making it virtually impossible for the public to have any input or say," said Michelle Boyd, a legislative director with Public Citizen.
AREVA is no stranger to the United States. It has business at 40 locations in 20 states, according to company documents. It also has offices in Aiken and owns COGEMA, the French subsidiary that is designing a plutonium conversion plant at SRS.
Mr. Abraham was not immediately available to comment, but Penny Phelps, a spokeswoman for the company's U.S. subsidiary, said it would rely on Mr. Abraham's in-depth knowledge. By law he can't have contact with the Energy Department for two years, she pointed out.
"We're very comfortable about how he is going to give use information based on his experience," she said.
WASHINGTON SAVANNAH River Co., which manages SRS for the Energy Department, hasn't made a habit of hiring former managers with the federal agency, said Jack Herrmann, the vice president of corporate communications for Washington Group International, Washington Savannah River Co.'s parent company.
The company doesn't need to, he said, because it has been working at the nation's nuclear weapons complexes since they were built.
"We've been in the business," he said. "We know the history."
Foreign companies hire those with knowledge of the U.S. system to catch up on the learning curve, Mr. Herrmann said.
Coincidence or not, the Energy Department is interested in the technology AREVA has to offer. The company has been building reactors while the U.S. hasn't permitted a new nuclear power plant in three decades.
British Nuclear Fuels also showed up at a good time. The company's jump into the U.S. market coincided with the Cold War's end about 1990, when the Energy Department was looking for help cleaning up nuclear waste.
At that time, DOE was urging U.S. companies that ran its sites to seek qualified partners from around the world.
Westinghouse, owned by Washington Group International, asked an American subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels to join its management team in the 1990s.
"The fact is, there aren't a lot of companies who can do it," said Will Callicott, a spokesman for Washington Savannah River Co.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.