Waste Issue Dogs Uranium-Plant Bid

By Ben Neary
Santa Fe New Mexican
December 9, 2003

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 summer.

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 elsewhere.

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 said.

"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 stage."

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 poorest-looking homes.

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 permitting process.

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 waste.

"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."

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