Richardson Withholds Support for LES

* Governor Bill Richardson announced this week that he will withhold his support for the uranium enrichment facility proposed by Louisiana Energy Services (LES) for Lea County, NM due to a lack of a proper waste disposal plan. Governor Richardson's announcement came following the introduction of a provision by Senator Pete Domenici to the federal spending bill that would require the Department of Energy (DOE) to store the waste generated by LES.

The provision states that, DOE will "take title and possession of such depleted uranium at an existing [depleted uranium] storage facility." Critics, including Governor Richardson, are concerned that the LES facility will be considered a depleted uranium storage facility once it is built and begins to store waste from LES. That would allow DOE to leave the waste in New Mexico indefinitely.

Uranium enrichment is a process by which natural uranium is separated into its component isotopes. The resultant uranium-235 becomes fuel for nuclear reactors and uranium-238, or depleted uranium, is waste. This waste must undergo conversion to a chemically stable form before it can be permanently disposed. There is neither a conversion nor a disposal facility in the U.S. equipped to manage the LES waste.

Governor Richardson issued his support based on LES assurances that it could remove its waste from New Mexico. Richardson said, "What I am seeking is either very strong language in the license that precludes the waste being stored in New Mexico or very strong language in an appropriations bill next year."

LES has yet to outline a clear waste disposal strategy, although Marshall Cohen, of LES, says that he expects that private industry will build a storage facility for the waste.

Governor Richardson's announcement comes shortly following a request by the Western Governor's Association to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is considering LES's operating license application, to participate in the licensing process. The association argues that many western states, particularly Colorado, will be effected by nuclear waste transportation from LES.

April Wade, of LES, claims that the transportation routes are tentative and may change in coming months. Rod Krich, also of LES, argues that the radioactive waste is no more dangerous than the coal shipments that travel through Colorado regularly.

However, Bill Mackie, of the association, pointed out that there have been three coal transportation accidents in Colorado in recent years, which have released coal and diesel fuel into nearby surface water bodies.

Critics are skeptical that the transportation and waste problems presented by the facility will be resolved by DOE possession of the waste. Amy Williams, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "There have been a variety of problems with shipments of radioactive waste to DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, and we've seen DOE's inability to manage its mountains of depleted uranium waste at Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio. It would be naive of the public to believe that DOE will be able to competently manage this waste given its record.

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