Gov. Bill Richardson may withdraw his support for a proposed nuclear fuel factory because of continuing concerns that New Mexico might be stuck with its waste, an aide said Wednesday.
"He's rethinking his support for the project," Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said Wednesday.
Richardson is worried about a lack of commitment from Louisiana Energy Services on a plan to dispose of radioactive waste that would be generated by its proposed factory, Gallegos said.
When the proposal to build the plant near Eunice was announced last September, Richardson said he would support it. But that support was based on a promise by LES that the plant's waste would not be permanently stored on site.
In the five months since, the company has suggested several options for getting rid of the waste but has not committed to any of them.
Richardson is disappointed with the lack of progress on a concrete plan to get rid of the waste, Gallegos said Wednesday.
The company in December submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which must approve plans for the plant. The application discussed several options for dealing with the waste but offered no commitment as to which one would be used.
A company official Wednesday said the company remains committed to coming up with a waste disposal plan that will satisfy Richardson.
"We strongly, fully support the governor's goal" of getting the waste out of New Mexico, said company spokesman Marshall Cohen.
But the governor's comments are a setback for LES. In addition to a federal license, the project requires state permits to build and operate, giving state government significant leverage.
Local opposition caused in large part by the waste issue killed a similar proposal by LES last year to build a plant in Tennessee.
If the governor decides to oppose the project, "That's basically the end of it," said Don Hancock, head of the Nuclear Waste Safety Project at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.
LES wants to build a uranium enrichment plant along the New Mexico-Texas border near Eunice. Enrichment involves processing uranium to produce an isotope that can be used in nuclear power plant fuel.
The process produces large quantities of uranium waste, for which there is currently no disposal option. Until one is found, the waste would be stored at the factory.
One disposal option LES is considering would be to pay the federal government to deal with the waste. The government is building two plants to process waste produced over the years at similar plants in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Legislation introduced last week by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., would ensure that LES has the legal right to pay the government to take the waste.
LES officials say they would prefer a private sector option. They want to contract with a private company, which would build a plant to process the waste for disposal.
The problem for LES is that no such private disposal operation now exists.
At best, according to company officials, the factory would be running for several years before a waste disposal option would be available. In the meantime, the waste, which is a radioactive and chemical hazard, would be stored in steel cylinders on a concrete pad behind the factory.
Richardson's concern is that the waste might end up sitting on that concrete pad indefinitely.
"The hope is for the waste to leave as soon as possible," Gallegos said.