Uranium foes fear an unfair hearing
By Kathy Helms
The Gallup Independent
January 20, 2004

FORT DEFIANCE < Last Monday night officials from Louisiana Energy Services (LES) received a "good show of support" from community members in Hobbs, N.M., for the construction of a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility in Lea County. But not everyone got to voice their views, and one of those who didn't believes it was a deliberate slight.

Lee Cheney, who represents Citizens Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) in Hobbs, has several beefs with LES. He especially takes issue with the company's plans to store radioactive waste tailings, or what the industry calls "byproduct." He also has taken offense to what he feels is censorship of public opinion when it comes to questioning the proposed uranium enrichment project. Cheney said he was not allowed to speak at the Jan. 12 meeting.

Marshall Cohen, public information officer for LES, says opposition to the project is centered in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. If anyone petitions the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to intervene in the licensing process, Cohen says, "that's where they'll come from."

"We've actually met with one of the opposition groups and we've provided them a copy of the license application. We're trying to be as open and honest as we can, but we know we won't change their minds. Frankly, I think much of the opposition is because of the fear that this will give more strength to the nuclear power industry as a whole, rather than what this facility is about," he said.

Waste storage

Cheney isn't necessarily opposed to LES. He said he just wants some questions answered. At last week's public meeting, he said, "People would raise their hand and Cohen would call on them to speak. After several people gave pep talks and praise for LES, I raised my hand. Cohen looked at me with my hand in the air and closed the meeting."

Cheney says the citizens group is a hard critic of LES, but he feels it's with good cause. "Over a 25 year period, LES will produce 200,000 tons of radioactive waste which, if stored at Eunice or at WCS just across the Texas state line from Eunice, will create the same kind of nuclear nightmare for the people of Lea County that is facing the people in Paducah, Ky," home of U.S. Enrichment Corp.'s gaseous diffusion plant.

"Most people do not understand that nothing LES says or promises is legally binding on LES unless it is documented in the LES license application to the NRC. The LES promise to Gov. Bill Richardson that there will be no long-term storage of waste at Eunice is not worth the paper it is written on because that promise is not legally binding on LES," he said.

Cheney wants to know whether LES will submit an amendment to the license application stating that LES will not store more than 2,000 tons (90 days' production) of radioactive depleted uranium waste at Eunice. "LES should have no problem doing [that] if LES has a place to ship its waste prior to being granted an operating license by the NRC," he said.

Preferred path

Cohen said LES's strategy, "and our preferred path here one we've committed to the governor and one we've put in our license application is we are going to do everything we can to facilitate the development in the U.S. of a deconversion facility. We've talked to companies and there is interest.

"The reason they will build it is because of us," he said. "It's a little bit of dominoes, because it makes no sense for them to invest much in doing that until they know we are for real, which means we have our license. Once we have that license and we start putting the shovels in the ground, then the reality of the deconversion will really begin to move.

"We're going to work with companies interested in doing deconversion between now and then ... so that when the license is ready maybe we can be ready to sign a contract with someone who would build the deconversion. They would take our waste and deconvert it and disposal would be very easy," he said.

The amount of waste would build slowly, so the ideal situation, according to Cohen, is that the company doing deconversion would be "three years or so" behind LES. "We're going to have the license in 2006, we hope. We'll start construction in the middle of 2006. The first enrichment services will begin probably two years later, 2008. The accumulation of enough byproduct, we call it, to begin to make it economical for them to have a plant, if it's a couple of years later we'll have a small amount built up and a stream developed because we do have contracts for the services already. That's the ideal situation," he said.

Asked whether LES could send waste from other facilities to be deconverted if it did not produce enough in Lea County, Cohen said, "I think clearly that is a potential. The government owns a lot of that. But there's no question in our mind that (for) a private deconverter in the U.S., it would make sense for them to look to that as well. It's hard to really say what the definitive answer is going to be, but there is a lot of interest and a lot of discussion on this."

Cohen said waste produced by the gas centrifuge uranium enrichment process "is not dangerous waste. It's very low-level, in a solid, not a gaseous form. It is always in a 5/8-inch steel container that has been tested for fire, flood, dropping, accidents, breaches and all kinds of things, certified by the Department of Transportation.

"The issue is the waste, in order to be ultimately disposed of, needs to go through one additional process that we call deconversion, and that makes it into a very stable uranium oxide form that makes it very easily buried or stored somewhere. But there is no facility in the United States at the present time to do that deconversion. It is done in Europe all the time," he said.

WCS option

Another option is for LES to send its waste to Waste Control Specialists (WCS), located just across the border in Texas, within view of the proposed 550-acre LES site.

"It has some interesting potential," Cohen said. "But they have to make decisions and they have to get permits, and the deconversion plant will have to get a license from the NRC. So there's a lot to happen, but the conversations are starting."

LES officials have been meeting with WCS's new president, George Dials, former president of LES who resigned in May 2003. "We have mutual interests," said Cohen, who was in Santa Fe Tuesday meeting with New Mexico's lieutenant governor.

CNIC's Cheney does not believe WCS is a panacea for LES's waste. "Proposing to ship the LES waste 100 yards across the Texas state line is simply deceptive politics that may get Bill Richardson off the hook, because the LES waste will not be stored in New Mexico," as Gov. Richardson has promised the people of his state. "But if the LES waste is stored near Eunice, either in New Mexico or Texas, the way it is stored at Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge, the nuclear nightmare facing the people of Lea County will not be solved," he said.

'Forbidden' mail

On Wednesday, Cheney sent an e-mail to the governor expressing a similar view and asking him to "demand a clear statement in the LES operating license granted by the NRC that LES cannot store more than 2,000 tons of waste at Eunice; or, withdraw your support of LES." His e-mail would not go through. Cheney said it came back "forbidden."

He said he then contacted the governor's director of Constituent Services, who promised to personally deliver the message to the governor, and who also was having a technical expert investigate the problem. After a couple days of trying to get through to the governor, Cheney referred his problem to Congresswoman Heather Wilson.

While proposing to build an enrichment facility in Hartsville, Tenn., LES sought a ruling from the NRC which would have prohibited members of the public (including organizations, local and state government bodies) from addressing such issues as environmental justice, the financial qualifications of the LES consortium, the disposition of thousands of tons of radioactive/hazardous waste which would be produced by the plant, the need for the plant, and more, according to Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) in Washington, D.C.

"Not coincidentally, a citizens group in northern Louisiana, Citizens Against Nuclear Trash, successfully stopped LES from building a similar plant there in the 1990s by successfully raising these exact issues before an NRC adjudicatory body," according to Michael Marriotte, executive director of NIRS.

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