At a meeting held in Eunice this week, several Lea County residents urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to expedite the licensing process to allow Louisiana Energy Services (LES) to construct and operate a uranium enrichment facility near Eunice. Residents of the Hobbs and Eunice area are optimistic about the economic benefits that the facility may present to their county.
NRC explained the procedure by which the independent government agency will review the license application to be submitted by LES in December. Tim Harris, NRC's environmental manager for the project, said, "I want to establish a dialogue between the public and NRC." Following LES's permit application, NRC will issue a draft environmental impact statement, which will be available for public review and comment.
The facility, which has been previously rejected by Louisiana and Tennessee, 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 Jeff Bingaman. A representative of Senator Bingaman, in a statement from the Senator, said, "This announcement ... is good news for Lea County. It is a vote of confidence in the communities and skilled workers of southeastern New Mexico. I look forward to working ... to make the 200 jobs associated with the facility a reality, while minimizing any potential negative impacts on the surrounding communities and the environment."
Uranium enrichment is a process by which natural uranium is separated into its component isotopes. Uranium-235 is used in fuel for nuclear power plants and in nuclear weapons. Uranium-238, also known as depleted uranium, is waste. Activists are concerned because LES has not indicated where the waste from the enrichment facility would be disposed of after the facility closes. Currently, there are 114,000 tons of depleted uranium waste sitting aboveground at Paducah, a former uranium enrichment facility in Kentucky.
The project is expected to be funded through a municipal bond initiative, which means that LES would borrow the $1.8 billion 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 not incorporated in the U.S., but is working in partnership with Urenco, a European corporation. Activists are concerned that the revenue generated by the facility will not be directed toward paying the bond and that Lea County residents will be obligated to cover the debt. Lee Cheney, of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center of Hobbs, requested that Lea County residents be guaranteed 51% ownership of the facility in order to safeguard its revenue.
Cheney also requested that LES guarantee zero emissions from the facility and address concerns about emergency response in the event of a radiological accident. Cheney established CNIC to share information about the LES facility with the community, saying that the problems associated with uranium enrichment are, "too serious to ignore."