Company Wants DOE to Accept Waste

By Ben Neary
Santa Fe New Mexican
November 21, 2003

Without telling the state, a company that wants to develop a uranium-enrichment plant in southeastern New Mexico has been working quietly with Congress to have the federal government accept radioactive waste.

The company, Louisiana Energy Services, wrote to Gov. Bill Richardson this summer pledging that waste from its planned $1.2-billion uranium-enrichment plant in Eunice, south of Hobbs, wouldn't be stored in New Mexico. The company plans to use enriched uranium from the plant to fuel nuclear-power plants around the world.

"LES commits to ensuring that a disposal path outside the State of New Mexico is utilized as soon as possible," the company wrote to Richardson in August.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Energy Services officials were working with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., on legislation to require the U.S. Department of Energy to accept radioactive waste, called tails, from uranium-enrichment plants. The language is included in the energy-policy bill Domenici authored that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

Gilbert Gallegos, spokesman for Gov. Bill Richardson, said the governor's staff learned of the waste-disposal provision of the energy bill only this week.

"LES made a commitment to the governor, and he expects that commitment to be honored, so that there will be no long-term storage or disposal of the enrichment byproduct in New Mexico," Gallegos said. "The governor hopes there is nothing in the energy bill that is inconsistent with that commitment."

The language in the energy bill would require the DOE secretary to enter into a memorandum of agreement with uranium-enrichment-plant operators to accept waste materials within 180 days of receiving such a request. The DOE could charge private companies to cover its disposal costs.

Jim Ferland, president of Louisiana Energy Services in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday that there's nothing inconsistent with his company's promises to Richardson that waste material will be moved out of the state and his company's efforts to line up a way to transfer the waste to the DOE.

Ferland said his company remains committed to moving the waste to a private facility that would process it, changing it from uranium hexachloride to uranium oxide. No plant currently exists in the United States that could do such "deconversion" of the uranium waste, he said, but the DOE plans to build two such plants in coming years in other states.

Asked how Louisiana Energy Services could guarantee the waste wouldnt remain in the state if it is turned over to DOE, Ferland said his company would insist on such a provision in any contract with DOE.

After his company announced its intention to build the plant in New Mexico, Ferland said, Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., asked Louisiana Energy Services how they could help.

Ferland said he told the senators it would be helpful to allow private plants to turn over uranium waste to the federal government. The U.S. Enrichment Corp., a private company created by the federal government, has the right to do that, he said.

"We suggested ... it would be nice if we had a level playing field with USEC," Ferland said.

The language spelling out possible waste transfer to the DOE would give his company another option for waste disposal "in case we ever need it," Ferland said.

Chris Gallegos, Domenici's spokesman, said this week that giving Louisiana Energy Services the ability to turn wastes over to the DOE would mean more ways to have the wastes neutralized.

"The reason it was added to the bill was to assure New Mexicans,particularly in light of the LES plan to move into Lea County, that the tails will not be a long-term issue," Gallegos said. "I'm sure it was added>with an eye on the development of that facility in southeast New Mexico."

Jude McCartin, Bingaman's spokeswoman, confirmed that Louisiana Energy Services officials called the senator's office. However, McCartin said, Bingaman was shut out of writing the energy bill and voted against it at a conference committee. Bingaman had nothing to do with the uranium-waste provision being included in the bill, McCartin said.

Don Hancock with the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque said this week his organization is closely following Louisiana Energy Services' plans to develop the uranium plant in New Mexico.

Hancock said he spoke with Ferland and other company officials last week and asked whether they had asked Congress for any legislation. They denied doing so, Hancock said.

Hancock said he only learned of the uranium-waste provision when the energy bill became public last weekend.

"They certainly knew that they had asked Senator Domenici to do something like this," Hancock said. He told Louisiana Energy Services officials this week he believes they were not straightforward with him.

Louisiana Energy Services announced its plans to build a uranium-enrichment plant in New Mexico this summer after running into stiff community resistance in Tennessee.

Before trying to open a plant in Tennessee, the company tried unsuccessfully for years to develop a plant in rural Louisiana. It abandoned its plans there amid charges of environmental racism. Critics claimed the company had picked the area because residents were mostly poor and black.

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