Concerns over waste disposal derailed the past two proposals by Louisiana
Energy Services to build a uranium-enrichment plant in southern states. Yet
New Mexico politicians are welcoming the plant here despite the continued
lack of a specific waste-disposal plan.
Politicians here have extended a warm welcome to the international
consortium, which plans to develop a uranium-enrichment plant in Lea County
in the southeast corner of New Mexico.
That New Mexico welcome stands in marked contrast to the stiff fight that
local residents in Louisiana and Tennessee mounted when the company earlier
proposed to locate its plant in poor, rural communities in those states.
Although Louisiana Energy Services had dangled the promise of hundreds of
jobs in both southern states, ultimately the opponents won and sent the
company, its job promises and its billion-dollar plant packing.
Despite well-funded lobbying efforts by the company, the citizen groups in
Louisiana and Tennessee prevailed largely by pressing a question that
remains unanswered even as LES prepares to set up shop in New Mexico: What
will happen to the radioactive waste from the uranium-enrichment plant?
Help from Domenici
LES officials won Gov. Bill Richardson's endorsement for the plant this
summer after promising that no waste from the plant would be stored in New
Mexico long term.
"The concrete pad to be initially constructed on-site for the storage of
(waste cylinders) will only be of a size necessary to hold a few years
worth, no more," company president E. James Ferland wrote to Richardson this
Ferland and other company officials say they intend to send waste, called
tails, from the plant to a private facility for conversion to a chemically
stable form that could be disposed of in existing low- level waste
repositories. The trouble is, however, that no such deconversion plant to
make tails safe exists in this country.
But after winning Richardson's support, and without telling the governor,
LES worked behind the scenes in Congress to include language in an
energy-policy bill that that would have required the U.S. Department of
Energy to accept waste from private uranium-enrichment plants.
Although the legislation didn't name LES, it's the only company that has
announced plans to build a uranium-enrichment plant. The legislation died in
the Senate last month but supporters vow to push it again.
Despite pushing for the legislation that would allow it to hand over waste
to the DOE, however, LES officials maintain that their first choice for
waste disposal would be to contract with a private firm.
Marshall Cohen, LES vice president, said the company is working with French
energy giant Cogema to develop a plant in the United States that could
convert the plant wastes to a form that could be disposed of more easily.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairs the Senate Energy Committee. Although the
recent defeat of the energy bill he drafted was a blow, he said in a recent
interview that he intends to push the bill again early next year.
And when Domenici does push his energy bill again, he says, he intends to
include the language once again that would require the DOE to accept waste
from private uranium-enrichment plants -- as well as a provision that would
give the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just two years to act on permit
applications from enrichment plants. The NRC typically takes much longer to
act on applications.
Domenici, a longtime supporter of both nuclear power and New Mexico's
national nuclear laboratories, makes no bones about it: He wholeheartedly
supports building a uranium-enrichment plant in southeastern New Mexico.
"We've gone and encouraged the hell out of LES to come to New Mexico,"
Domenici said, "and for that I make no apologies and I'm not alone."
Seeking new assurances
In addition to the established oil and gas industry in southeastern New
Mexico, Domenici said the enrichment plant would bring more jobs and
industry to the area. "We're beginning to make a nuclear corridor there that
would include WIPP and this facility."
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad holds nuclear waste.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized Domenici's energy bill on the
Senate floor, calling it "the epitome of corporate welfare" and saying that
it would cost the taxpayers perhaps as much as $1 billion to take uranium
waste from LES.
Domenici, however, notes that a provision of his bill would have allowed the
DOE to charge any private uranium company for the cost of disposing of its
waste. He said McCain was simply wrong.
"When McCain got up and mouthed around about down in southeastern New
Mexico, this gift is being made to this company -- wrong!" Domenici said.
"Why would he do it? Who knows. For a guy like me who lives here, there's no
telling why John McCain does anything."
Repeated attempts to reach McCain's staff were unsuccessful.
But regardless of who would bear the cost of disposing of the waste, the
fact remains that there's no plant in the country to "deconvert" it to make
it safe for storage in existing facilities.
The U.S. Department of Energy is swimming in decades of waste from its own
uranium plants. While plans are under way to build a DOE plant to deal with
the waste, none is operating yet.
Domenici said there's no danger that LES will try to shrug off its
commitment to get the waste out of New Mexico by consigning it to the DOE.
If the DOE gets it, the senator said he simply won't allow the agency to
keep it in the state.
In a prepared statement released Sunday, Richardson said concern over the
prospect of LES turning waste over to the federal government prompted him to
work with Domenici to secure a stronger pledge from the company.
"I have secured a commitment from LES officials that they will not contract
with the U.S. Department of Energy for waste disposal unless DOE commits
never to store the waste products permanently in New Mexico, and agrees to
remove all waste from New Mexico in a timely manner," Richardson said.
Richardson also said LES has agreed to put a prohibition against long-term
waste storage in the New Mexico in its federal license. Domenici has agreed
to sponsor legislation next year prohibiting the DOE from keeping waste from
the plant in the state.
Questions in Tennessee
Just months before surfacing in New Mexico, LES was pushing its
uranium-enrichment plant proposal in rural Hartsville, Tenn.
Jerry Clift, county executive in Trousdale-Hartsville, said LES officials
first told citizens in his county that they planned to send waste from the
plant to WIPP in New Mexico.
"They just told us they were sending it there, and they wouldn't have any
problem with tails," Clift said. He said LES changed its management team
after that announcement was made.
Clift said he contacted DOE officials and asked whether the federal agency
would take waste from the plant if it were built in his area. "The
Department of Energy, they told me, 'Honestly, we have no place for it to be
put," he said.
Will Callaway, executive director of the Tennessee Environmental Council in
Nashville, monitored LES's proposal from the time the company first
expressed interest in locating in the state late last year until it pulled
out early this summer.
Trying to get LES to explain exactly what it intended to do with the waste
was a slippery proposition, Callaway said.
"They repeatedly came up with a number of sites for disposal of radioactive
waste," Callaway said. But each time they did, he said, citizens
investigated and found the named sites were only temporary, didn't accept
that kind of waste, or had other problems.
There are some 700,000 tons of waste awaiting treatment and disposal by the
DOE at former federal uranium plants at Paducah, Ky., Portsmouth, Ohio, and
People who live near the existing uranium-enrichment plants have been
clamoring for the federal government to move the waste, Callaway said. It
will likely take many, many years to deal with the backlog before the DOE
would be in any position to take new waste from private industry, Callaway
"That seems to be their whole premise, 'Don't worry. The Department of
Energy will take control of this waste,'" Callaway said of LES. "Obviously,
the DOE is obligated to take control of hundreds of thousands of tons of
waste from commercial facilities. But that waste still sits on-site, because
the DOE's facilities aren't up and running or aren't past the planning
Callaway said LES officials insisted for several months to community leaders
in Tennessee that there would be no emissions of radioactivity to the air
and water around the proposed plant. He said LES later admitted that would
not be the case.
Eventually, the company pulled out of Tennessee.
Louisiana proposal dropped
Before its brief stop in Tennessee, LES had worked unsuccessfully for
several years to open its uranium-enrichment plant in an especially poor and
rural area of northern Louisiana, near the town of Homer.
Diane Curran, a lawyer now in private practice in Washington, D.C., fought
LES's Louisiana licensing proposal before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
as a staff lawyer with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
"They are bad news for any community," Curran said of LES. "They
misrepresent the danger of what's being done. They misrepresent the
lethality that they're going to produce. They try to buy off the communities
where they're going in without being straight with them about what the risks
are. And in the case of the Louisiana plant, they went through a sham
site-selection process and came up with one of the poorest and most isolated
communities in the region."
In fighting the LES proposal, Curran and other lawyers argued, among other
things, that the LES proposal violated federal prohibitions against
environmental racism. The term refers to the practice of siting
objectionable facilities in minority communities.
"This plant was proposed to go smack in the middle of two very small, and
very poor, African- American communities," Curran said.
Curran said she took a deposition from the man who prepared the
site-selection study for LES. While the company had claimed it had selected
the site based on scientific analysis, she said the man admitted under her
questioning that he "eyeballed" the area and picked a spot with the
Curran said an NRC panel of judges agreed with environmental justice
argument, but said the NRC commissioners overturned all but a small portion
of judges' ruling.
While the NRC didn't deny the company's application, its decision to send
the application back for more work was apparently enough to convince the
company to abandon its plans in Louisiana after several years in the
Cohen, vice president of LES, strongly denied the company engages in
environmental racism. He said for anyone to suggest otherwise is an
appalling and unjustified attack.
"They withdrew the application," Cohen said of LES's Louisiana application.
"We were not turned down for the application."
Don Hancock, researcher with the Southwest Information and Research Center
in Albuquerque, has been following LES's plans to operate in New Mexico.
He says New Mexicans should be asking the same questions about waste
disposal that dogged the company in the South.
Before anybody believes LES's promises to dispose of its New Mexico waste
outside the state, Hancock said they should insist the company produce a
contract with a bonafide, existing waste- disposal plant that can take that
"Anything short of that is not really an effective promise," Hancock said.
"It's a promise that LES can't guarantee they can fulfill. And from a public
standpoint, people shouldn't believe it, frankly."