The Jan. 7 article "Nuke Plant's Waste Plans Questioned" implied that Louisiana Energy Services (LES) misled the citizens of Lea County and New Mexico regarding the removal and disposal of uranium byproduct from the yet-to-be-built national enrichment facility.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In a previous review of an application for an LES enrichment facility, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) concluded that burial of depleted uranium byproduct that has been "de-converted" from uranium hexafluoride to the more chemically stable oxide form in abandoned mines constituted an acceptable "plausible strategy" for the ultimate disposition of the byproduct.
This conclusion was reached after thorough review by NRC technical experts and after extensive litigation during the public hearings that were held at that time. Plausible strategy means that a proposed course of action is plausible, not necessarily actual.
In recognition of the NRC's previous decision, LES' license application included the same plausible strategy and mentioned the mine owned by Cotter in western Colorado that the Journal referred to. While LES has not yet begun pursuing this disposal path and the Cotter mine does not today have a permit for this type of byproduct, it will be considered along with other potential strategies as the project proceeds, is licensed and has a timetable for the production of byproduct.
Another path for LES to consider is to send deconverted byproduct to a low-level waste repository. Envirocare in Utah, Hanford in Washington and Barnwell in South Carolina are three facilities that could accept it. These facilities could bury the deconverted byproduct deep underground or contract with Cotter or other mines to bury the byproduct once the proper permits were obtained. LES has spoken to Envirocare and has also spoken to Waste Control Specialists in Texas, which plans to seek a license to take low-level waste.
None of these options would have the byproduct remain in New Mexico should they be exercised.
These low-level waste facilities were not mentioned in the NRC license application because it is industry knowledge that they are able to take this byproduct. Under NRC guidelines a "plausible strategy" as described above, is necessary for the license application to be found acceptable.
This is not a dangerous or high-level radioactive material. Under the NRC's regulations this byproduct would be considered a Class A low-level waste, meaning it has the lowest concentrations and/or the shortest radioactive half-lives. It has been safely handled and stored at facilities like ours in Europe for many years. A number of citizens from Lea County have seen this firsthand.
Another issue in the article that needs clarification relates to the concrete storage pads at the NEF for the uranium byproduct cylinders (UBCs). The concrete storage pads will be built only as needed. That is stated in the license application. The application does request approvalfor life of the plant storage, as this is necessary for safety and business purposes and to be consistent with the 30-year license period requested.
The article fails to mention that on the same page of the application (page 4.13-8 of the NEF environment report) that discusses the Cotter mine plausible strategy there is the following statement:
"LES has committed to the Governor of New Mexico (LES, 2003B) that: (1) there will be no long-term disposal or long-term storage (beyond the life of the plant) of UBCs in the State of New Mexico; (2) a disposal path outside the State of New Mexico is utilized as soon as possible; (3) LES will aggressively pursue economically viable paths for UBCs as soon as they become available; (4) LES will work with qualified vendors pursuing construction of private deconversion facilities by entering in good faith discussions to provide such vendor long-term UBC contracts to assist them in their financing efforts; and (5) LES will put in place as part of the NRC license a financial surety bonding mechanism that assures funding will be available in the event of any default by LES."
LES's preferred plausible strategy is to use a private deconversion facility and take the depleted uranium byproduct to a private low-level waste repository.
We remain firm in our commitments to the governor regarding ultimate deconversion and disposal of this byproduct, and we remain steadfast in our active and ongoing efforts to identify, contract with and use a private, economically viable byproduct disposal path that will allow us to meet these goals for New Mexico.