Federal regulators have rejected efforts by New Mexico state government to press concerns about wastedisposal and other issues during a licensing hearing for a proposed uranium-enrichment plant near Hobbs.
Louisiana Energy Services, a company largely owned by European concerns, wants to construct a $1.8-billion plant to produce enriched uranium fuel for nuclear reactors. Thereıs currently no facility in the country that can treat radioactive waste from such a plant to make it safe for disposal.
The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Monday rejected several contentions that the New Mexico Environment Department and the New Mexico Attorney Generalıs Office had proposed to raise in the permitting process.
However, the board granted requests from two citizen groups, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and Public Citizen, to pursue many issues in the permitting process.
The citizen groups may press contentions concerning questions of waste storage and disposal and the plantıs likely impact on area water supplies, the board ruled. The state agencies may participate on those issues, but wonıt take the lead.
"I am very disappointed that the state has not been granted standing on many vital environmental issues surrounding the proposed National Enrichment Facility in Eunice,² Ron Curry, New Mexico Environment Secretary, said Monday. "While the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has rightly granted the people of New Mexico a seat at the table during these proceedings, several issues important to the state and its citizens, including the future disposition of all waste products, have been left out of this process.²
Curry said the state intends to take the boardıs ruling up with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The board said it would consider the NMEDıs concerns about radiation monitoring at the plant. However, the board rejected other concerns the department asked to raise, including:
The prospect that radioactive waste from the enrichment plant might be stockpiled at the plant during its expected 30-year operation.
The prospect that Louisiana Energy Services might try to reclassify waste from the plant as "resource material² instead of waste.
Concerns about the economic viability of the plant.
The board also rejected contentions raised by the New Mexico Attorney Generalıs Office questioning whether LESıs foreign owners might simply walk away from the plant if it proves to be economically viable.
The board said it would allow the full Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider the AGıs contention that storing depleted uranium in steel cylinders at the site poses an environmental risk to the state.
Marshall Cohen, vice president of LES, said Monday that the company remains committed to working with state regulators on waste-management issues and other areas of concern regardless of the boardıs ruling. If the company and the state come to agreement, he said that could be presented to federal regulators as a permit condition.
"Regardless of that process, regardless of those decisions, we are open and committed to working with the state,² Cohen said.
However, Cohen said his company is concerned that the citizensı groups are interested only in delaying the federal permit with an eye toward killing the project.
Opposition from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service played a critical role in blocking earlier efforts by LES to open its enrichment plant in Louisiana and, later, in Tennessee.
Cohen emphasized that building the plant near Hobbs offers to bring hundreds of construction jobs to the area. He said LES is talking with three private companies about possibly building a facility in the United States to handle waste from the enrichment facility, but declined to name them.
Michael Mariotte, executive director, Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C., said he believes his group succeeded in pressing its case where the state failed because itıs more experienced in the licensing process.
Lindsay Lovejoy, a Santa Fe lawyer, represented the citizensı groups in presenting their contentions.
Under the boardıs order, the citizensı groups will take the lead on questions of waste disposal.
Mariotte said New Mexico citizens should be concerned about the prospect of seeing the enrichment plant built here.
"They should be concerned because itıs the same issues that keep coming up with this company over and over again,² Mariotte said. "Itıs the waste issue: What are they going to do with the enormous amount of waste that this plant will produce, and which they have not been able to come up with a viable plan for?²