Unwelcome Welcome: A nuclear consortium has the NRC's green light, regardless of New Mexicans' objections
By Amy Williams
Albuquerque Tribune
May 28, 2004

The idea that a financially troubled, foreign, nuclear consortium whose members have a deplorable environmental past, whose technology has shown up in the hands of terrorist nations, and which has been roundly rejected by citizens of two other U.S. states, would get a free pass to build a uranium enrichment facility in New Mexico seems implausible in this enlightened age, right? Maybe not.

At least not if the staff of our own federal agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), has its way. Earlier this month, staff attorneys for the NRC recommended against allowing the citizens of New Mexico - through our state Attorney General's office and Environment Department - to raise these and other concerns regarding a proposed uranium enrichment facility to be built in Lea County by the foreign consortium Urenco. Not to be outdone, Urenco itself asked the agency to rule against allowing two citizens' groups, who represent their members living near the facility, to raise similar concerns in a formal process, called an intervention, provided for under federal law.

How can this be? Apparently, the NRC has such an awesome 'say-so' over all things nuclear that even our own Governor - who, as former U.S. Energy Secretary is an authority on such matters - cannot get a hearing on issues regarding the health and safety of New Mexicans. Apparently the NRC staff, most of whom reside in and around Washington, D.C., are more interested in licensing these facilities than the concerns of those of us who eat, drink and breathe in proximity to them.

Case in point: If the NRC staff has its way, Urenco will be allowed to build a facility in the Land of Enchantment that will, over 30 years, create a mountain of radioactive waste that no facility in this country - in existence or even on the drawing boards - is licensed to accept. The NRC would also dismiss the question of whether the consortium would even be financially capable of safely dealing with the waste in light of published reports, including a London Observer article, that one of the consortium members, British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd (BNFL), is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. This is nothing to take lightly given that BNFL is the proud owner of the Sellafield nuclear facility in the United Kingdom, which remains operational and continues to create a toxic mess that will require cleanup well into the future.

Also on the NRC's cutting room floor are concerns about groundwater contamination and security. Groundwater contamination has plagued the host city of a similar facility in Paducah, Kentucky. Moreover, widely published reports, including an article in Time Magazine, indicate Urenco's security is so bad they have supplied nuclear technology to an A-list of terrorist states, including North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said that "all politics is local." During the past ten years, the citizens of Louisiana, followed by those of Tennessee, proved this adage true by insisting on answers to some of these same questions when Urenco proposed to build this facility in their states. Hearing none, they sent the company and the federal agency packing. It is time for all New Mexicans to either get the respect and the answers we deserve - or do the same.

Williams is a coordinator with Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety of Santa Fe. She wrote this column for the New Mexico Editorial Forum.

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