Energy Bill Provision Requires DOE Ownership of Uranium Enrichment Waste

* Senator Pete Domenici recently introduced a section to the energy bill that requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to take ownership of waste produced by an unspecified uranium enrichment facility. The National Enrichment Facility, proposed by Louisiana Energy Services (LES) for location near Eunice, New Mexico, is the only uranium enrichment facility planned for the U.S. The section has received much criticism from the Senate and the public alike.

The section claims that the facility is necessary to diversify the uranium supply and to introduce a new enrichment process in the U.S. Furthermore, the section undermines the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by requiring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide the environmental impacts of the facility after LES's license application is submitted, but before an environmental impact statement is prepared. Uranium enrichment is a process by which natural uranium is separated into its component isotopes. The resultant uranium-235 is used in nuclear reactors, while the remaining uranium-238, or depleted uranium, is waste.

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. Both LES and Urenco have come under fire recently amid allegations that Urenco supplied uranium enrichment technology to Iran, Iraq and North Korea. LES's proposal has already been rejected in Louisiana and Tennessee.

LES assured Governor Bill Richardson that the waste produced by the facility would be moved out of the state by the end of the facility's lifetime. A spokesperson for Governor Richardson said, "LES made a commitment to the governor and he expects [it] to be honored...." Activists, however, are concerned that Domenici's provision would allow DOE to leave the waste in the state indefinitely, as DOE has done at its other uranium enrichment facilities in Portsmouth, Ohio, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Paducah, Kentucky. There is 140,000 tons of depleted uranium waste at Paducah awaiting permanent storage or processing. There is currently no permanent repository in the U.S. for this waste and the section does not include plans for such a repository.

On the floor of the Senate, Arizona Senator John McCain criticized the section saying, "...The energy bill rider shortcuts the NEPA process and meaningful judicial review of the Environmental Impact Statement, for the construction of this facility in New Mexico. To add insult to injury, the provision further requires the Government to acquire the waste and dispose of it for a price that is possibly significantly less than the cost."

The plan is an attempt by LES to begin construction on its facility before rival U.S. Enrichment Corporation, a private company created by Congress, receives a license for its uranium enrichment facility. Jim Ferland, of LES said that he suggested the section to Domenici in order to, "[have] a level playing field with [U.S. Enrichment Corporation]."

Activists are not optimistic about the section. Don Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, called the section a multi-million dollar bailout for LES.

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