New Mexico Congressmen Attend Groundbreaking of Uranium Enrichment Facility in Lea County

* Senators Bingaman and Domenici and Representative Pearce this week appeared at a groundbreaking ceremony for a proposed uranium enrichment facility. The facility is proposed for Lea County in Southeastern New Mexico near Eunice. The project is proposed by LES, formerly Louisiana Energy Services, and its partner, Urenco, which was recently accused of distributing uranium enrichment capabilities to North Korea and Iran. LES and Urenco announced recently that Lea County is now the preferred location for the uranium enrichment facility, which was previously planned for Tennessee.

The facility faced huge opposition in Tennessee due to concerns about waste generation and storage, environmental effects, the need for the facility, and water usage. Eunice sits above the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water for agriculture throughout the Midwest.

Enrichment is a method by which natural uranium is processed for use in nuclear reactors. Natural uranium is composed primarily of uranium-238 with a small portion of uranium-235. Enrichment separates natural uranium into its component parts; the uranium-235 is used in reactors, while the remaining uranium-238, also called depleted uranium, is waste.

Although LES claims that all of the facility's waste will be removed from the site and shipped to an appropriate disposal site within the lifetime of the facility, activists are concerned that the waste may not be removed at all. There is currently no disposal facility that can adequately dispose of enrichment waste, although in its negotiations with Tennessee, LES claimed that the waste would be shipped to Yucca Mountain, should it be built. Activists are also concerned that LES could attempt to expand the waste permit of the nearby Waste Control Services facility to dispose of the enrichment waste.

Either solution would require transporting nuclear materials. In Tennessee, shipments of depleted uranium were not escorted or monitored by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, despite the risk that transportation poses. For example, a truck carrying five containers of depleted uranium recently overturned in Tennessee. Although none of the containers were damaged, Lisa Gue, of Public Citizen, said, "The risks of transportation have to be weighed against the benefits of getting it to its intended destination."

Although LES billed this week's ceremony as a groundbreaking, in reality it may take as many as seven years for the facility to begin operation. LES must first receive the appropriate permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the State of New Mexico. Permitting can take up to two years, and may require LES to account more thoroughly for possible discharges from the facility into the air, water and soil.

The facility is expected to cost $1.1 billion and create 250 permanent jobs. State and county officials have already voiced their support for the project. State Senator Carroll Leavell, of Lea County, said, "We have no opposition here, not from residents, not from the business community or from state and local officials." Opposition appears to be building among New Mexico residents, however. Geoff Petrie, of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, said, "There will, no question, be opposition to this."

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