Richardson says uranium waste can't stay in N.M.
By Ben Neary
Santa Fe New Mexican
December 1, 2004

Gov. Bill Richardson has placed his support for a planned uranium-enrichment facility on hold until the state gets a binding guarantee from the federal government that no radioactive waste would remain in New Mexico.

Richardson's decision means the state will not act on a groundwater-discharge permit that the Louisiana Energy Services Co. would need to operate. LES proposes to build its plant near Hobbs, in southeastern New Mexic

o. The plant would produce fuel for nuclear reactors. Waste from the plant would include depleted uranium.

Richardson's decision to withdraw his support follows action late last month in which Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., added to a federal spending bill language that addresses disposal of waste from uranium-enrichment plants.

Domenici's provision, now awaiting presidential approval, specified that the U.S. Department of Energy must take title and possession of radioactive waste from enrichment plants at existing storage facilities.

Both Richardson and private watchdog groups opposed to the LES plant said Domenici's provision could be construed to allow waste from the LES plant to be moved to a storage facility that might be built in New Mexico.

"Sen. Domenici had good intentions, but the language is inadequate and doesn't fix the problem," Richardson said Tuesday.

Richardson had promised early this year to withdraw his support from the LES project unless Congress passed language guaranteeing that no waste from the plant would remain in the state.

Richardson said he will withhold his support of the LES project until either Congress passes other language that specifies the waste will be removed from New Mexico or until the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues LES an operating permit that contains binding language to that effect.

"What I am seeking is either very strong language in the license that precludes the waste being stored in New Mexico or very strong language in an appropriations bill next year," Richardson said.

Richardson also said his office is talking to New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid about a joint effort concerning the LES project. He declined to say what they're considering.

Both the New Mexico Environment Department and the AG's Office have been rebuffed by the NRC's licensing board in efforts to raise concerns in the licensing process about waste disposal and other concerns with the LES plant.

Domenici, in an interview on Monday, said his staff was aware that Richardson would have concerns about the provision Congress has passed. The senator said there was much discussion of draft language in the days before the vote on the spending bill.

Domenici said he remains committed to working with Richardson to include language concerning waste disposal in the federal license for the plant.

Marshall Cohen, LES spokesman, said Tuesday that the company remains confident that it will be able to satisfy Richardson's concerns. Cohen said the company believes that the language Domenici passed is a good first step, but said the company has already begun discussions with Richardson's staff about other language that could be included in the federal permit.

"(Richardson) has had his concerns for a while, and we understand that," Cohen said. "And we're looking for a combination of ways -- the statutory language that was in the bill, plus the licensing language -- and we'll work with his office very closely to do that."

Cohen has maintained that the company expects private industry will build a plant in the United States to process the depleted uranium to make it safe for disposal. No such facility exists in the country today.

The U.S. Department of Energy has hundreds of thousands of tons of similar waste stockpiled at uranium-enrichment plants in Kentucky and Ohio. The DOE plans to build its own waste-treatment plants to handle its backlog. Ohio officials have voiced opposition to the prospect of taking waste from the LES plant if it's ever built.

Ron Curry, New Mexico Environment secretary, said Tuesday his office has received a groundwater-discharge-permit application from LES. He said the permit application is not yet deemed complete.

Curry said that before his office can consider processing the groundwater permit, it must know how long waste from the plant will remain on site. That may not won't be clear until the federal licensing process is complete, he said.

Once the permit application is deemed complete, Curry said, it would go through a public-hearing process.

Copyright 2004 Santa Fe New Mexican

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