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An F.O.B. On The Loose

An Arkansan's drive to store radioactive waste on an island got lots of attention in the White House

by Michael Weisskopf/Washington

Time magazine

(TIME, June 2) -- What do you get when you mix an old Clinton chum with former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and a onetime guitarist for the band that made In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida famous? Answer: a particularly screwball episode from the place that has fostered quite a few--the election-year White House.

In Bill Clinton's cash-crazed drive for re-election, the President opened the White House to all sorts of schemers. But few pitches got more consideration than Mark Grobmyer's curious plan to buy enriched uranium from Russia and the U.S., lease it to utilities worldwide, collect the spent radioactive rods and store them on a tiny volcanic island in steel casks made in, of course, Arkansas.

Grobmyer, a Little Rock lawyer and former Clinton golfing buddy, last year got virtually free range of the Executive Mansion to push the idea for a company he represented. Even though he was shot down in the end, Grobmyer made bridge-building history: his project combined Baker, the firm's counsel; Alex Copson, a sometime bass player with the British rock band Iron Butterfly; and Dan Murphy, a retired admiral who had held top jobs in the CIA and the Bush vice presidency. Grobmyer's plan was heard far and wide: it reached Clinton twice by letter, and it landed in offices as high as Deputy National Security Adviser Nancy Soderberg's. In fact, it so consumed White House aides that the relentless Grobmyer was dubbed the "pitchman" by an insider. But for all the boasting he did about his presidential connection, Grobmyer came away without the environmental waivers he needed to deposit the radioactive waste in Palmyra atoll, a U.S. territory where this kind of storage is prohibited.

Still, Grobmyer visited the White House nearly 200 times during Clinton's first term, often seeking help on business interests. In January 1996 he began pressing the National Security Council to meet with Murphy and Copson, principals of the Washington-based firm, U.S. Fuel & Security Group, that inspired the cradle-to-grave nuclear-fuel idea. Repeatedly rebuffed, Grobmyer kept appealing to the next higher level, prompting complaints that he was reducing complex issues to a political campaign. He declined to be interviewed on the specifics of the case. Clinton finally wrote to Grobmyer on Sept. 23, saying his project was interesting but had a number of problems.

In the end, Grobmyer's plan did not even get as far as other dubious proposals that landed at the White House last year: the rescue of a Chinese-American dissident from a Beijing jail (pushed by entrepreneur Johnny Chung, who gave $366,000 to the party) and the transport of natural gas across war-torn remnants of the Soviet Union (pushed by tycoon Roger Tamraz, who gave $200,000). But then again, in the strange case of the radioactive casks, no money landed in Democratic coffers.

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