Louisiana Energy Services has a waste problem.
The company, an international consortium of nuclear firms, wants to build a uranium plant in southeastern New Mexico.
The $1.2 billion plant, which would process uranium for use in nuclear power plant fuel, would employ hundreds in Lea County's Hobbs and Eunice area and has won widespread support from the area's political leaders.
But LES is having a hard time convincing some New Mexicans that the plant's waste will not be a problem.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has made the fate of the waste a make-or-break issue for his support of the project, and the project's critics have placed the waste at the center of the debate.
The waste that would be generated is relatively simple and the radiation it emits is, by any measure, extremely low.
The concrete pad LES wants to build behind its enrichment plant could eventually grow large enough to hold 15,700 steel cylinders, each 4 feet in diameter and 8 feet long. Each cylinder would hold 12 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride, a substance that looks like rock salt.
Uranium "is in everything around you. It's not some exotic material," LES lead nuclear engineer Rod Krich said in a recent interview.
Pound for pound, Krich argued, the uranium in the waste that would be produced at the LES plant would be essentially no more radioactive than the naturally occurring uranium found in soil.
When pressed, Krich acknowledged an important catch— the naturally occurring uranium in soil comes in trace amounts, while the stuff coming out the back end of the LES plant would be far more concentrated— pure uranium hexafluoride.
That means the plant's waste would be more radioactive than the dirt in your garden.
Weighing the risk
However, even at those much more concentrated levels, the radiation dose from the sealed steel containers is safe, according to Krich.
But how radioactive is it?
By the numbers, it is safe enough to stand next to with no ill effects.
The radiation dose at the surface of one of the waste containers is such that you would have to drape yourself naked over the sealed container for three to four hours to get a radiation dose equivalent to a chest X-ray.
Move 1 foot away, and you would need to stand next to the container for eight hours to get the equivalent of that same X-ray.
"You can walk up, touch it, lick it, spend a lot of time around these things," Krich said.
Another commonly used point of comparison is the radiation dose you get on an airplane flight. The thinner atmosphere provides less protection from space radiation, so passengers and crew are constantly bathed with low doses, similar in intensity to the dose a worker would receive working in the uranium plant's waste area.
Project critic Don Hancock, head of the Nuclear Waste Safety Project at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, acknowledges the relatively small radiation dose from the waste containers but says a worker required to monitor the waste containers to make sure they are not leaking would receive a cumulative dose.
It is the chemical risk, rather than the radiation risk, that may be the bigger danger.
Ingested, uranium can cause kidney damage. And chemical reactions that occur when leaked uranium hexafluoride breaks down in the environment can release hydrogen fluoride, which can kill in high concentrations.
The danger, according to Hancock, is the risk of leaks.
He points to records compiled at older nuclear plants in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio that use identical steel cylinders to store identical waste.
A study released last year found that, of 46,422 steel storage cylinders identical to the ones LES wants to use, eight have been found leaking after corrosion has eaten through the steel, exposing the uranium hexafluoride to open air.
But that is not the end of the story, Krich notes.
Uranium hexafluoride tends to react chemically with the cylinder's steel, plugging the holes.
The seal is not complete. The federal study that reported the eight leaking cylinders noted that, in one case, as much as 100 pounds of uranium hexafluoride leaked.
But environmental sampling data from the existing stockpiles in Tennesse, Kentucky and Ohio suggest that, if the leaking uranium got out of the cylinders, not very much of it went very far. No evidence has been found that the area around the waste sites has been contaminated by waste leaking from the cylinders.
Hancock does not dispute that but says that lack of evidence of spreading uranium waste is not the whole story.
The three sites where uranium waste is stored are heavily contaminated with uranium for other reasons, involving operations at the plants that produced the waste.
According to Hancock, that would make leaks from the uranium waste hard to detect.
"What I said is they haven't been documented yet," Hancock said. "That's different from saying they haven't occurred."
Could the factory operations that have fouled the environment around Piketon and Paducah happen here as well?
Krich says no.
Piketon and Paducah use antiquated and messy technology known as "gaseous diffusion." The new plant Krich wants to build in New Mexico would use high-tech centrifuges of a type now in use at similar plants in Europe.
Run by European nuclear giant Urenco, the European plants have none of the sort of contamination problems found around the older U.S. gaseous diffusion plants, according to Krich.
Hancock also grants that point. "Is there a huge problem at those facilities? Not that I know of," he said.
But he nevertheless believes that the risks are real— of a tornado sweeping through the storage yard, for example, or mishandling causing one of the steel cylinders to break open.
Everyone takes risks in their lives, he said, but he believes this is one risk that is avoidable.
"I think having tons of depleted uranium in New Mexico is an unnecessary risk," he said.