Nuke Plant's Waste Plans Questioned
Wednesday, January 7, 2004
By John Fleck
Albuquerque Journal

Federal documents raise new questions about how long radioactive waste might remain at a proposed southeast New Mexico nuclear factory and where it would eventually go. New Mexico officials have asked for assurances that waste storage at the factory site would be temporary.

But in a federal filing last month, international nuclear consortium LES proposed building a storage area large enough for all the waste produced at the plant over 25 years of operation.

In its application submitted last month to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build the plant, LES said its preferred long-term option would be to send the waste to an old uranium mine in Colorado for disposal.

But the mine owner said his company has not talked to LES and is not willing to take the company's radioactive waste.

"That's not something we're interested in," said Richard Cherry, president of Cotter Corp.

Cotter owns the western Colorado mines identified in LES's application as a possible disposal site. Cherry said such disposal would not be legal.

"We're not licensed to do that," Cherry said in a telephone interview Monday.

LES Vice President Rod Krich acknowledged Tuesday there have been no talks with Cotter but said the option of sending the waste there remains "plausible."

LES - formerly known as Louisiana Energy Services - wants to build a uranium enrichment plant near Eunice. The plant would process uranium for nuclear power plant fuel.

The plant has won enthusiastic support from state and local officials. But that enthusiasm has been tempered by sharp questioning from Gov. Bill Richardson about plans for disposing of the plant's radioactive waste.

Uranium processing generates a type of waste that cannot be dumped legally anywhere in the United States.

Solving the disposal problem requires construction of a new plant to treat the waste, then finding a dump site that will take it.

Company officials say they are committed to helping set up a treatment plant somewhere in the United States. Cotter Mines is the only site mentioned in their NRC application as an eventual disposal site for the treated waste.

Their NRC application offers no firm commitment for setting up such a treatment and disposal system.

In the nearer term, the company plans to pour a concrete pad to store the waste.

In a Dec. 6 letter to Richardson attempting to calm fears that New Mexico would be stuck with the plant's waste indefinitely, LES president Jim Ferland wrote, "The concrete pad to be initially constructed on-site for the storage (of the waste) will only be of a size necessary to hold a few years' worth, no more."

The company's NRC application describes a concrete storage pad, to be built in stages, sufficient to store 25 years' worth of waste.

Krich said Tuesday there is no contradiction between the commitment to the governor and the application to the NRC.

The company's intention all along has been to build the storage area in phases, Krich said in a telephone interview Tuesday, with an ultimate size sufficient to hold a full 25 years' worth of waste.

The question about the size of the storage pad and the possibility of mine disposal are part of a pattern of behavior by the company, said Don Hancock, head of the nuclear safety project at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.

Over the past 15 years, LES has proposed building similar factories in Louisiana and Tennessee. In both cases the company gave up because of community opposition.

"This is typical of how LES has been for the last 15 years, both in Louisiana and Tennessee," said Hancock, who found the questionable passages about the mine and the storage pad during his review of LES's application. "They'll say whatever they think will get them what they want."

In a statement, Richardson's office said it is still reviewing the NRC application but expects the company to abide by the commitments made in the Dec. 6 letter.

"Governor Richardson expects LES to honor its commitment that there will be no long-term storage or disposal of the enrichment byproduct in New Mexico," the statement said.

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