Feds take N.M. out of facility decision
By Ben Neary Santa Fe New Mexican
August 19, 2004

       Ruling that state regulators missed a critical filing deadline, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Wednesday it won't allow New Mexico government agencies to press concerns about waste disposal and other issues during the licensing process for a proposed uranium-enrichment plant near Hobbs.

A company called National Enrichment Facility -- a consortium of European energy companies with some minor American partners -- proposes to build the $1.8 billion enrichment plant. Until recently, the company called itself Louisiana Energy Services.

Without commenting on the merits of the state's points, the NRC denied requests from both the Environment Department and the attorney general's office to press several specific concerns about the plant. The NRC said the state failed to submit its contentions correctly earlier this year.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry blasted the NRC decision Wednesday. "I think it shows a very neglectful attitude toward the state of New Mexico and toward the elected officials in New Mexico," Curry said.

Curry said the plant requires several state environmental permits apart from the federal license.

The NRC has agreed to allow Curry's department and the attorney general's office to pursue only a few other contentions regarding the plant: issues of radiation monitoring and the concern that storing waste in steel cylinders at the site poses a risk. The NRC has set a fast-track schedule for considering the permit application.

Among other concerns, the NRC denied the state the right to raise questions about waste disposal and whether the company's foreign ownership poses a risk that it would walk away from the plant if it proves economically nonviable.

Glenn Smith, a lawyer with the AG's office, said Wednesday that his office is still reviewing the commission's order and considering its options. "We think it's very unfortunate that, in terms of something as significant as an uranium-enrichment facility that's going to be generating deadly radioactive waste as a byproduct that the voices for the state wouldn't be allowed to participate more fully in the matters that are at issue," Smith said.

Two citizen groups, Nuclear Information and Resource Service and Public Citizen, filed their contentions on time. Under the NRC's order, they will take the lead on critical questions of waste disposal at the plant during the permitting process.

"I'd say that the commissioners are clearly wanting to keep the state as far out of the process as they possibly can," NIRS executive director Michael Mariotte said Wednesday of the commission order.

Mariotte said his group is accepting public donations to support its work on the uranium-plant permit. He said the private groups have nowhere near the financial resources of the state in pressing contentions in the federal permitting process.

NIRS was instrumental in blocking earlier plans to build the plant first in Louisiana and then in Tennessee.

Currently no facility in the United States processes radioactive waste that the enrichment plant would generate in its production of fuel for nuclear reactors.

Marshall Cohen, vice president of the National Enrichment Facility, said Wednesday the company remains confident that private industry will build a waste-treatment facility in time to handle waste from the New Mexico plant.

Cohen said the company remains committed to its pledge to Gov. Bill Richardson that it won't leave waste in New Mexico for long-term storage. Regardless of the NRC decision, he said, it's possible the company and the state can draft a binding agreement on that point that could be presented to the NRC for inclusion as a condition in the final federal permit.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., had floated legislation last year that would have required the U.S. Department of Energy to take waste from the private plant. That provision died with the senator's energy bill.

The state's congressional delegation and Richardson voiced support for the enrichment-plant project last year. However, Richardson said last winter that he would withdraw his support for the plant unless Congress specified that waste from the plant would be removed from New Mexico.

To date, Congress has not specified that waste from the plant would be removed from the state.

Richardson has refused repeated requests for an interview in recent weeks to explain whether he will withdraw his support in light of the congressional inaction. National Enrichment Facility early this year gave $10,000 to Richardson's political action committee, Moving America Forward.

National Enrichment Facility recently announced it has retained Washington Group International, the same company that manages the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, to build the uranium plant.

Washington Group International made a $17,000 donation to Richardson's 2002 election campaign, The Associated Press reported that year.

Billy Sparks, a Richardson spokesman, said Wednesday that Richardson "strongly feels that the state's concerns particularly relating to storage and long-term disposal need to be addressed thoroughly, prior to any licensing decisions.

"The governor will continue to push for assurances throughout the regulation process," Sparks said. He said Richardson's ultimate support of the plant will depend on the outcome of the waste-disposal issue.

"The major issue is that the governor has said that he will not support any long-term storage of radioactive waste in the state of New Mexico," Sparks said. "He has consistently stated that that's his primary concern."

Gay Dillingham, the chairwoman of the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board, on Wednesday called the NRC ruling a slap in the state's face. The EIB sets environmental regulations in New Mexico.

If the company was serious about getting waste out of New Mexico, Dillingham said, it would include a promise to do so in its federal license application. "Instead, the application asks for storage on-site for the life of the project," she said.

Dillingham said she would support the state's political leaders withdrawing their support of the uranium-plant project.

"To protect citizens, the state needs transparency and a seat at the table to perform due diligence, period," Dillingham said.

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