State Gets Tough on Proposed Plant
Governor still supports uranium enrichment project but intends to monitor waste
By Ben Neary
Santa Fe New Mexican
December 12, 2003

State regulators intend to increase scrutiny of the company pushing to develop a uranium-enrichment plant in the southeast corner of the state.

This past summer, before Gov. Bill Richardson endorsed Louisiana Energy Services' plans to build the $1.2 billion plant, the company assured him no radioactive waste from the plant would remain in the state.

But without telling Richardson, Louisiana Energy Services worked with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to insert language in the federal energy-policy bill, which died in Congress last month, that would have required the U.S. Department of Energy to accept waste from the plant.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry said Thursday it was a mis take for Louisiana Energy Services officials to work with Domenici on the waste-disposal issue behind Richardson's back.

"I think the LES management made a serious blunder with the energy bill and their connection with it," Curry said Thursday. "They had worked, and the state had worked with them, to develop the trust. But when that particular piece of language was put into the energy bill, and no one in the state -- most importantly the governor -- was made aware of it until after the fact, that was unfortunate. Which is putting it mildly."

Richardson still supports construction of the uranium plant in the tiny village of Eunice, in Lea County, out of respect for local interest in bringing jobs to the area, Curry said. The federal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in nearby Carlsbad holds highly radioactive wastes from government operations. Richardson served as U.S. secretary of energy under President Clinton when WIPP opened.

"The governor still wants the plant to continue with its plans because the people of Eunice and Lea County want it," Curry said. "But just like WIPP, he wants to make sure that all the environmental safeguards are in place. And that's what we're going to do."

Before Louisiana Energy Services can open its plant, the company needs a permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The company also needs air-quality and water-discharge permits from the state. The company has not applied for any permits.

The state will remain particularly vigilant in dealing with the company to ensure nothing compromises the state's ability to monitor its environmental compliance, Curry said. And Richardson's administration will make sure nothing stands in the way of removing the waste from New Mexico.

"What the governor wants to make sure happens is that the state doesn't miss any opportunity to look at them environm entally in all aspects of their operation," Curry said. In addition to the state permits, he said, the state will play a large role in the NRC-permit process.

New Mexico is also considering developing regulations specifically aimed at the Louisiana Energy Services plant that would allow the state to impose a fee on the in-state generation of radioactive wastes, Curry said. The state imposes similar fees on some types of mining wastes.

"We anticipate raising the bar on permitting (the facility)," Curry said. In addition to looking at air emissions from the plant, he said, the state expects to project the effect of any possible leak of radioactive wastes from canisters of stored materials at the site.

Louisiana Energy Services president James Ferland said Thursday he hadn't heard about the state's intention to take a harder look at his company's operations. "But we intend to comply with all the state regulations, so I'm not sure that has a significant impact on us," he said.

Asked whether he agrees with Curry's assessment that it was a blunder for his company to work with Domenici on waste disposal, Ferland said: "I don't really have a comment on that until I have a chance to see what Secretary Curry said."

Richardson's administration is unhappy about Louisiana Energy Services' work with Domenici, but Ferland and others from the company maintain Louisiana Energy Services has never wavered in its commitment to remove all its waste from New Mexico.

Even if Congress had allowed Louisiana Energy Services to turn over waste to DOE, the company says its first choice would be to hand off the waste to private industry once a facility capable of handling it is built.

Domenici also has said he wouldn't allow DOE to keep any waste from the Louisiana Energy Services plant in New Mexico if the federal agency took control of it.

The question of what DOE would do with any additional waste from the Louisiana Energy Services plant remains unanswered, however.

DOE has decades of uranium-enrichment waste, called tails, stockpiled at its former plants in Kentucky and Ohio, and it has no facility to treat the waste to make it safe for disposal. Waste from such plants represents a massive liability for the federal government.

The U.S. General Accounting Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, reported last week that DOE has spent $823 million since 1988 on its program to clean up its Paducah, Ky., uranium-enrichment plant. The plant turned out enriched uranium for the federal government for decades before Congress turned it over to private industry while retaining federal responsibility for the cleanup.

DOE now estimates the cleanup of the Paducah plant will take until 2019 and cost about $2 billion, the GAO reports. But the cos t of decommissioning the plant when it shuts down could run as high as $13 billion through 2070.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque said Thursday he welcomes the prospect of increased state monitoring of Louisiana Energy Services' activities in the state. Hancock's center has monitored the company's activities in New Mexico, but he said specifics of Louisiana Energy Services' plans won't be known until it files its federal-permit application.

Hancock said he's concerned about the state's ability to monitor the company's activities and permits since this would be the first time New Mexico will have undertaken such oversight. He suggested the state consider increasing permit fees to cover its costs.

Hancock said he agrees Louisiana Energy Services should have informed Richardson and others in New Mexico of its work with Domenici on turning over waste to the federal government.

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