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
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
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
Once the permit application is deemed complete, Curry said, it would go
through a public-hearing process.
Copyright 2004 Santa Fe New Mexican