Uranium-Plant Politics: Nuclear Pig in Poke?

Santa Fe New Mexican
December 11, 2003

The magic word was "jobs." So dazzled by it were Sen. Pete Domenici and Gov. Bill Richardson, two otherwise-bright New Mexico political leaders, that they failed to raise a couple of questions they should have asked before throwing in their lot with Louisiana Energy Services, proponent of a uranium- enrichment plant down near our state's southeast corner:

What's the catch? Why is our state being favored with this factory?

The catch, as The New Mexican's Ben Neary made clear in his Tuesday report, is that there's no provision for disposal of the nuclear waste the factory would generate.

As for the company choosing a spot just inside our border with Texas, east of Eunice and miles from nowhere, what better location for work likely to pose environmental and public-health hazards?

We'd suggest somewhere in central Nevada, where radioactive trash would find closer, perhaps safer disposal -- when or if the people of that state accept Yucca Mountain as a high-level nuclear-garbage pit. The closest nuke-waste repository to the New Mexico location is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant east of Carlsbad, 50-60 miles away -- but WIPP, our politicians have assured us over and over, is for storing only low-level nuclear waste -- contaminated lab equipment and clothing, for example.

Yet WIPP continues to attract the eyes of higher-hazard nuclear producers, who have great influence with the party running Washington.

Sen. Domenici has tipped his hand: "We're beginning to make a nuclear corridor there" -- in Southeastern New Mexico -- "that would include WIPP and this facility."

And what else? WIPP II, some kind of storage depot for higher-level radioactive leftovers? Or maybe a laboratory for chemical conversion of the higher- potency material to lower-level stuff storable half a mile below ground in the salt caverns of WIPP? Our country doesn't yet have such a "deconversion" plant -- and Gov. Bill Richardson, who served as energy secretary during the Clinton administration, should realize more than most politicians that this could be a nuclear pig in a poke.

Besides, there's been a change of policy since LES, part of a multinational consortium, gained the governor's endorsement of the plant by promising that no waste from it would be stored in New Mexico for very long: Domenici's infamous energy bill now carries language obligating the U.S. Department of Energy to accept waste from uranium-enrichment plants. LES worked behind the scenes for that change, without telling Richardson. So far, the feds have no place to put the stuff. So it would sit around on a concrete slab outside Eunice -- for, say company officials, only "a few years," whatever that means. Federal defense and energy policy has been hell-bent for creating radioactive danger, but tortoise-slow when it comes to disposing of, or neutralizing, such hazards.

Gov. Richardson said early this week that he and Domenici are seeking stronger pledges from the company that they'll move the stuff out of here soon -- and, presumably, safely. And the senator now says he'll introduce a prohibition against DOE storage of nuclear-enrichment tails in our state.

But what's the state of nuclear-neutralizing and storage technology? Laws and promises don't mean much if science can't carry them out.

This project already has been turned down in Tennessee and Louisiana, where local officials had the strong impression that LES wasn't leveling with them about its risks. The hundreds of jobs proffered by the company weren't enough to overcome locals' suspicions in those states.

But the promise of employment, and well-applied blandishments, have brought out the boosterism in Lea County, where the board of commissioners has approved $1.8 billion in industrial-revenue bonds and tax breaks for LES to put up the plant.

New Mexico long has appealed to Big Industry as a dumping ground. Domenici and Richardson both have been fighters against previous efforts to haul hazardous material to our state. Richardson should be citing that old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

Before blithely buying into this project, both he and Pete should use their considerable investigative powers to determine the credibility and accountability of this company and its largely overseas ownership.

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