The National Enrichment Facility and Louisiana Energy Services
In 2003, Louisiana Energy Services (LES) proposed the National Enrichment Facility (NEF) to be located near Eunice, New Mexico, in Lea County near the southeastern corner of the state. Uranium enrichment is a process by which natural uranium is separated into its component isotopes. Uranium-235, or enriched uranium, is used in fuel for nuclear reactors. The remaining uranium-238 is waste, and is also known as depleted uranium (DU).
LES is a partnership between global nuclear fuel corporation Urenco, three large utilities and a construction company. Urenco is a consortium of British Nuclear Fuels, the Dutch government and several German nuclear utilities.
Although NEF has garnered the support of Lea County's entire state legislative delegation, the Chambers of Commerce of Jal and Eunice, the superintendents of the Eunice and Hobbs school systems, the head of the Hispanic Workers' Council, New Mexico Representative Steve Pearce and Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, there are several reasons why NEF would have serious environmental, economic and political consequences. For example:
British Nuclear Fuels Limited operates the Sellafield uranium enrichment facility in the United Kingdom and another in the Netherlands. Sellafield was closed following a series of environmental and safety violations. The operating license of the facility in the Netherlands was revoked twice after the facility released radioactive emissions 28 times the authorized level into the air.
There is no reprocessing or disposal facility for the waste that would be generated by NEF. There is already 140,000 tons of such waste sitting aboveground at the Department of Energy (DOE) uranium enrichment facility at Paducah, KY. Those activities have compromised groundwater quality in the area for more than 30 years. Cleanup at Paducah is estimated to cost upwards of $2 billion.
Lockheed Martin and Martin Marietta, operators of the Paducah plant in the 1980s and 1990s, are currently subject to a massive class-action lawsuit filed by former employees at the plant. These employees claim that they are suffering from illnesses and diseases caused by their exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation on the job.
LES's proposal has been rejected in both Louisiana and Tennessee due to issues of environmental justice and Urenco's questionable environmental practices. In Louisiana, LES was accused of environmental racism after attempting to locate NEF in a neighborhood composed primarily of people of color. In Tennessee, residents refused NEF, citing gross environmental negligence at Paducah and the DOE uranium enrichment facility at Portsmouth, Ohio. Additionally, residents pointed out DOE's dumping of radioactive contaminants into nearby streams and private wells and dumping 61,000 pounds of radioactive uranium into the Ohio River between 1952 and 1987.
Senator Pete Domenici, at LES's request, included a provision in the 2004 energy bill that would have allowed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to disregard the National Environmental Policy Act while considering LES's license application. The provision required the NRC to decide the environmental impacts of the facility after LES's license application had been submitted, but before an environmental impact statement was prepared and provided to the public for review and comment.
Lea County has offered a $1.8 billion industrial revenue bond to LES for construction of NEF, which means that LES would borrow the funds for the facility from a private lender. LES must repay the loan, with accompanying interest and taxes, through profits created by the facility within 30 years of construction. However, LES is only a shell for Urenco, a European corporation. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the revenue generated by the facility will be directed toward paying the bond and that Lea County residents will not be obligated to cover the debt.
There is a large quantity of highly enriched uranium being distributed to nuclear power plants by the U.S. and Russia in an effort to dismantle their nuclear weapons. Therefore, demand for enriched uranium is low, which means that LES may not profit from NEF and may be unable to repay the bond issued by Lea County.
The $1.8 billion construction budget for NEF equates to more than 50% of the entire fiscal year 2003 budget of the state of New Mexico. At a generous 300 jobs created in the Eunice area, this equates to approximately $6 million per job.
Urenco was recently accused of selling sensitive uranium enrichment technology to North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Libya.