Ohio Says N.M. Can Keep Its Nuclear Waste
By John Fleck
Albuquerque Journal
January 17, 2004

Ohio does not want to end up with New Mexico's radioactive waste.

A new waste processing plant to be built in Ohio is one potential destination for waste from a nuclear fuel factory proposed for southeastern New Mexico.

But a letter from Ohio Gov. Bob Taft on Thursday to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that Ohio doesn't want it.

Taft's letter doesn't say Ohio will try to block the waste outright, but it does suggest that significant hurdles stand in the way of sending the waste there.

The letter is the latest waste-related problem for international nuclear consortium LES, which wants to build a nuclear fuel plant near Hobbs.

LES filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month for a license to build and operate the plant, which would process uranium so it can be used in nuclear power plant fuel. The project's critics have focused primarily on unanswered questions about what will happen to the factory's radioactive waste.

Criticism of its waste plans helped drive LES out of Tennessee, where the company wanted to build a plant before coming to New Mexico. And while state officials here have generally endorsed the project, Gov. Bill Richardson has in recent months raised pointed questions about what the company will do with its waste.

In its NRC application, LES spells out several "plausible" disposal plans, and it says it will honor a commitment to Richardson to get the waste out of New Mexico by the end of the plant's 30-year lifespan. But in its license application the company declines to commit to a specific waste disposal strategy.

Waste from the plant will be in a form that requires chemical processing before it can be legally disposed of as low-level radioactive waste. Because no such plant exists in the United States, more than 700,000 tons of similar waste is sitting at three U.S. government sites where uranium processing was done in the past.

LES officials say they would prefer to work with a private company to set up a new plant to process the waste. As no such private-sector plant exists in the United States, another option the company discusses in its NRC application is turning the waste over to the federal government for processing.

The government is building two plants to process old waste from previous U.S. government nuclear factory operations, and under the law LES has the legal right to pay the government to take its waste as well.

That is the option that worries Taft, because one of those government waste processing plants is being built in Ohio.

Ohio is already home to a large quantity of similar nuclear waste, and sending more "would raise significant environmental and public safety issues that would need to be resolved," Taft wrote.

LES spokesman Marshall Cohen said Taft's letter does not concern the company, because their preferred option— waste processing by a private company— is unaffected.

The project's critics say Ohio's reaction is likely to be repeated elsewhere. "This is the kind of response New Mexico's going to get from any state," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C.

Mariotte and other critics of the project argue that, despite LES's best efforts, the waste could end up permanently in New Mexico because of the lack of a practical disposal option.

In his letter, Taft asks the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not to approve a license for LES until a firm decision is made about what to do with the plant's waste.

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