New Mexico: A nuclear homeland?

by Gail Binkly

With open arms, New Mexico’s politicians welcome a new uranium-enrichment plant

While Carlsbad, N.M., vies to become the home of the next atomic bomb factory (HCN, 9/1/03: Courting the bomb), a rural county just to the east also hopes to become a nucleus for the nuclear industry. Lea County is courting Louisiana Energy Services (LES), a company that wants to build a $1.2 billion facility for processing fuel for nuclear power plants.

Politicians in New Mexico, which is already the home of the nation’s low-level nuclear waste dump, are cheering the project. They say it would provide an economic boost for the oil- and gas-dependent county along the Texas border, where the median household income is about $30,000, three-quarters of the national average.

“There are no downsides,” said Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, who has long lobbied to lure such a plant to New Mexico, during the formal announcement Sept. 2. Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Gov. Bill Richardson, both Democrats, also support the project, and local residents have voiced few concerns.

Construction of the facility — planned for outside Eunice, near the Texas border — could take seven years and pump hundreds of jobs into the area. The plant will bring about 200 permanent positions, says Marshall Cohen, vice president of communications and government relations for LES.

But nuclear watchdogs say the plant may also bring air and water contamination, danger to workers, and low-level radioactive waste. “The community’s being sold a bill of goods,” says Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a nonprofit in Santa Fe.

Go west, young man

Uranium-enrichment facilities boost the concentration of U-235 in raw uranium from under 1 percent to 3 to 5 percent. The enriched material is then used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants, which supply one-fifth of the nation’s electricity. At present, the U.S. gets most of its enriched uranium from European plants and Russia, where a “megatons to megawatts” program converts old nuclear weapons into fuel for power plants. While many people believe there is a glut of enriched uranium on the market, LES sees an opportunity for the future, given the Bush administration’s support for nuclear power.

LES is part of an energy conglomerate headed by Urenco, which operates three European enrichment plants. When the company tried to build a plant in Louisiana in 1989, it met resistance from local residents. Eight years later, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board rejected LES’s application after finding the company had violated environmental-justice laws by selecting a poor, largely black area. The company tried to move into Tennessee, but locals reportedly soured on the plan after LES officials claimed the facility would produce no air or water pollution, then admitted that was not true. The company abandoned the Tennessee proposal earlier this year after Sen. Domenici wrote a letter to the company, touting New Mexico’s “understanding” of nuclear technology.

The process of enriching uranium creates depleted uranium, which is mildly radioactive and highly toxic. Ross Black, chairman of the Lea County Commission, says he was initially worried about the planned facility, but after touring a facility in the Netherlands, he now has “absolutely no negative concerns.” “We have (oil) refineries that are more dangerous than this probably will be,” Black says.

Last gasp

LES spokesman Cohen says the New Mexico operation will use just 75 acre-feet of water a year, less than a golf course, and that emissions will be well within legal limits. He also says waste will be stored on-site in steel cylinders for no longer than the life of the plant, estimated at 30 years. By then, he says, the company will have found another home for the depleted uranium.

But Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste programs for the Southwest Research and Information Center, an energy watchdog group, scoffs at that. He says LES should be required to have a binding contract with a site to take the radioactive waste. At present, there is no place in the country licensed to accept such waste.

“Even if this uses less water (than older plants), emits less uranium into the air and water, and generates less waste, they are going to emit large amounts of uranium and there are going to be huge amounts of waste on site,” he says. “It’s still a very dirty industry.”

Before beginning construction, LES must obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and permits from the New Mexico Environment Department, a process that could take two years. While Hancock says it will be difficult to fight the federal license, he and other nuclear watchdogs will turn out in force during the state permit process, when hearings will likely be held in Santa Fe. “The fact of the matter is no place in the country needs or wants this facility,” says Hancock. “They’ve come to New Mexico as a last gasp.”

The author writes from Cortez, Colorado. This story was funded with a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety 505-986-1973

Southwest Research and Information Center 505-262-1862 © High Country News