A House investigating subcommittee, overriding objections from Gulf Oil and the Canadian government, decided yesterday to make public a package of 28 secret documents on the yellowcake cartel, an international producers' club that manipulated world uranium prices.
The documents cover secret meetings in 1972 and 1973 when three foreign governments and international uranium corporations, including Gulf, organized themselves to fix bids and limit production in order to drive up the price of yellowcake, the common-term for uranium oxide, the raw fuel for nuclear power plants.
Lawyers from Gulf urged yesterday in a closed session of the House Commerce Oversight Subcommittee chaired by Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.) that the internal memorandums and letters from their corporate files should be kept confidential because they represent "attorney-client" communications.
A letter from the State Department also forwarded the objections of Canada which helped initiate the cartel five years ago through its government-owned uranium company. The Canadian government enacted a law last fall aimed at halting U.S. antitrust investigations into cartel documents originating in that country.
But the subcommittee voted 11 to 0, to make the documents public at a hearing next week. Commerce Chairman Harley O. Staggers (D-W.Va.) was present for the vote, to discourage any thoughts of appealing the issue to the full committee.
The world price of uranium went from $6 a pound to $42 in subsequent years and the U.S. price eventually followed it, though industry circles still argue over how much the cartel itself contributed to that price escalation.
Moss said the documents show an impact on U.S. prices from the cartel activities and the subcommittee will pursue the question of whether future energy supplies might be subject to international manipulation if the United States expands its nuclear power industry.
Gulf, which fought release of the documents in federal court as well as before the subcommittee, said in a brief statement yesterday: "We hope the documents will be responsibly reviewed in their totality. The release of the documents does not affect our position that Gulf violated no U.S. laws."
Gulf has acknowledged that it participated in the cartel through a subsidiary, Gulf Minerals Canada, but it contends that it was operating under directives from the Canadian government.
The cartel activities became the focus of billion-dollar lawsuits last year when Westinghouse had to default on its uranium-supply contracts with public utilities. About 20 public utilities are now suing Westinghouse and Westinghouse is suing Gulf and 28 other uranium companies, claiming that the cartel squeezed it out of the uranium market and drove up prices.
One subcommittee member, Rep. Douglas Walgren (D-Pa.), has both of the industrial giants in his Pittsburgh district - Gulf and Westinghouse. Walgren said neither corporation has tried to lobby him on the congressional investigation and he found the Gulf documents "a matter of absolute public interest."
The uranium cartel raises questions, Walgren said, about whether the United States will have fair access to future energy supplies, whether oil companies should own investments in competing energy fields and whether the United States should move ahead with the controversial fast-breed nuclear reactor, a power plant which would depend less upon raw uranium fuel.
"If we find an oil company involved in restraint of trade in another energy field . . . you're going to really wonder whether oil companies should be invovled in competing energy fields," Walgren said.