Governor Wavers on Uranium Plant
By Ben Neary
Santa Fe New Mexican
February 18, 2004

Gov. Bill Richardson says he's strongly considering withdrawing his support of a uranium-enrichment plant proposed for Southern New Mexico.

If Richardson sours on the project, officials say it could block plans to build the plant in New Mexico.

Louisiana Energy Services, largely owned by a consortium of European energy companies, has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a permit to build the billion-dollar uranium plant near Eunice, in Lea County. The product from the plant would fuel nuclear reactors.

Richardson came out in favor of the plant last year after Louisiana Energy Services officials pledged that no radioactive waste from the plant would remain in New Mexico over the long term.

On Tuesday, however, Richardson said he's concerned that the company's application to the NRC lacks ironclad guarantees that no waste would remain in the state. He said he's also concerned about lack of action in Congress to specify that waste wouldn't remain here.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., invited Louisiana Energy Services to come to New Mexico after Tennessee rebuffed its plans to develop an enrichment plant there last year. The company earlier abandoned plans to open shop in Louisiana after encountering strong opposition there as well.

Company officials emphasize that their first choice for disposing of waste from the Lea County plant would be to turn it over to private industry for treatment. However, there's no plant in the United States that can transform waste from the uranium-enrichment process, known as tails, into a stable form that can be disposed of safely.

Domenici inserted language in his energy bill, which failed to pass late last year, that would have required the U.S. Department of Energy to take waste from the plant if it's built. That provision aroused concern from plant opponents who argued that the company couldn't honor its pledge to take the waste out of the state if it's in the hands of the federal government.

Late last year, Domenici assured Richardson that he would introduce legislation that would require the DOE to get the waste out of New Mexico if the federal government ever took possession of it. Domenici reintroduced the energy bill this month and again included the specification that the company could turn over waste to the DOE.

However, the DOE already has hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium-enrichment waste from old federal plants stockpiled in Ohio and Kentucky. Although the agency has plans to develop a treatment facility for the waste, treating it all would take decades.

Richardson said Tuesday he's concerned that Ohio Gov. Bob Taft recently wrote to the NRC stating that his state doesn't want to accept any waste from the Lea County plant.

"My concerns are I fail to see any language in the Congress that prohibits any disposal in New Mexico," Richardson said Tuesday. "I'm concerned about the NRC application."

Richardson announced in December that Louisiana Energy Services president Jim Ferland had committed to him that he would support the state's efforts to include a prohibition against long-term waste storage in New Mexico in its NRC permit. However, the governor said Tuesday that the company hasn't followed through on that pledge.

Attempts to reach Louisiana Energy Services officials for comment after business hours on Tuesday were unsuccessful. Attempts to reach a spokesman for Domenici after hours also were unsuccessful.

Although the NRC permit is a federal proceeding, state opposition could block the project.

"Our understanding is that the NRC tends to weigh the state's feelings pretty heavily," said Jon Goldstein, spokesman for the New Mexico Environment Department.

In addition to the federal permit, Goldstein said the uranium plant would require approval from the state, including air-quality and water-quality permits.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque has analyzed Louisiana Energy Services' plans since the company announced its plans to come to New Mexico last year.

Building an enrichment plant anywhere in the country endangers New Mexico because waste could ultimately come here, Hancock said.

Hancock said Louisiana Energy Services has failed to follow through on its commitments to Richardson. "From our standpoint, LES has had six months to show that its commitment meant something, and they haven't done any of the things that they could," he said.

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