Wastin' away in New Mexico

European-based company breaks ground on uranium enrichment facility


Since the first atomic bomb was developed and detonated in New Mexico, the nuclear industry has been drawn to the state, which today is home to two weapons labs and the nation’s only nuclear waste dump. Now, on a stretch of land in the southeast corner on the Texas border, an international company is building the first uranium enrichment facility in the nation. It’s the first commercial nuclear facility to receive a license in 30 years, and it’s a sign that the so-called nuclear renaissance is more than just hype.

At the end of August, Louisiana Energy Services (LES), owned by the European consortium URENCO, began construction on its plant, modeled on facilities in Europe. When it opens in late 2008 or early 2009, the National Enrichment Facility will use thousands of centrifuges to spin uranium hexafluoride, separating uranium 235 isotopes to make fuel rods for the nation’s nuclear power plants. "We’ve had contracts for several years, and we have delivery dates in 2009," says Marshall Cohen, the company’s executive vice president for public affairs and public policy. Today, 20 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from nuclear reactors, and less than 10 percent of the fuel is produced within the country. "That by itself is not good," Cohen says. "We are more dependent on uranium from overseas than oil."

Local officials are thrilled: The facility will bring 1,000 construction jobs and later, 300 full-time and contract jobs. In the past few decades, southern New Mexico has subsisted almost entirely on the boom-and-bust oil and gas industry, and lawmakers are eager to diversify the economy.

"I don’t think there could be anything much better for the east side (of New Mexico) — which already has potash and oil and gas — (than becoming) a sprawling center for different kinds of nuclear activity," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., at a Sept. 5 press conference. Domenici, who wooed LES to his state, now wants more nuclear facilities to join them. But the radioactive waste produced by the nuclear fuel cycle won’t just go away, and could hinder Domenici’s ambitions.

State left out

Gov. Bill Richardson, D, wasn’t too thrilled about being stuck with the plant’s low-level radioactive waste, depleted uranium. And when the state’s attorney general, Patricia Madrid, was barred from full participation in the enrichment facility’s licensing hearing due to new anti-terrorism measures, Richardson threatened to withhold support for the plant.

Six months later, however, in June 2005, Gov. Richardson and Attorney General Madrid announced that they had reached an agreement with LES allowing the facility to store about 5,000 12-ton cylinders of depleted uranium — about eight years’ worth of waste — on site for 15 years. In return, LES will "maintain financial assurance" to guarantee disposal of the waste, and will not dispose of waste in New Mexico, nor build a "deconversion" or treatment facility in the state.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission objected to this settlement, citing "two fundamental flaws": It was negotiated and signed without input from the federal government, and its agreement concerning inspections and compliance is unenforceable. Under federal law, states lack authority to inspect nuclear facilities and cannot enforce nuclear waste regulations.

But Cohen says his company regards the settlement as "legally binding." The company’s next step is to build the nation’s first commercial deconversion plant — and they’ll honor Richardson’s conditions by putting it just across the border in Texas. That plant, says Cohen, will "take the material out of our facility (and) separate it into hydrogen fluoride and very low level uranium oxide, which is very easily disposed of in the U.S."

Without the deconversion plant, the U.S. Department of Energy — which currently has a backlog of 704,000 metric tons of depleted uranium — would become legally responsible for the waste. Other options for moving the waste out of New Mexico, according to LES, include shipping it to Canada, Europe or perhaps Kazakhstan.

Third time’s a charm

But LES hasn’t come up with "plausible or economic" ways to dispose of the waste or to protect the environment and public health, nor has it realistically assessed the plant’s decontamination costs, says Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

The nonprofit group has been fighting LES since 1989, and Mariotte is puzzled as to why New Mexicans have so eagerly embraced the company. When LES proposed facilities, first near Homer, La., and then near Hartsville, Tenn., the local communities — both predominately poor and African-American — opposed those plans. Eventually, state lawmakers backed the communities, and the company withdrew its proposals. In August 2003, LES announced it was abandoning its plans in Tennessee, and planned instead to come to New Mexico — at the request of Sen. Domenici and with promises of state tax incentives.

"Civic leaders aren’t understanding that there will be very few permanent jobs (that eastern New Mexicans are qualified for)," says Mariotte. "The people in Louisiana and Tennessee came to understand that the higher-paying jobs would be taken by the Europeans who already know how to operate the plant."

Cohen acknowledges his company had problems in the past with finding a site. In Louisiana, for instance, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board rejected the company’s license, citing environmental justice issues. "We’re determined to not let that happen again," he says. "We’re going to do it right." The facility is safe and efficient, he says, and the time is ripe for domestic uranium development. "This country is coming to realize that (nuclear power) is a good source of electricity, and it doesn’t produce anything that contributes to global warming."

Meanwhile, construction is under way near Eunice: Workers are erecting perimeter fences and pouring concrete pads. And according to Wes Reeves, spokesman for Xcel Energy in Amarillo, the company is already ramping up power to the site. By the spring of 2008, Xcel will be sending the facility about 32 megawatts of electricity — enough to power more than 10,000 homes — from its coal-fired and natural gas power plants in Texas and eastern New Mexico.

The author is HCN’s Southwest correspondent.

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