Uranium Factory Proposed for N.M.
By John Fleck
Albuquerque Journal
August 28, 2003

An international nuclear consortium wants to build a billion-dollar nuclear fuel factory in southeastern New Mexico.

The group, led by the European nuclear giant Urenco, picked New Mexico after opposition stalled efforts to build a plant in Tennessee.

The factory would prepare uranium for use in nuclear power plant fuel.

Leaders in the southern New Mexico communities around the site have endorsed the project, while New Mexico anti-nuclear groups prepare to fight it.

The National Enrichment Facility, as the factory would be called, would employ 400 people during its five- to seven-year construction and provide more than 200 permanent jobs, according to project spokesman Marshall Cohen.

During the past month, the elected leadership of Lea County, Eunice and Jal passed resolutions endorsing the project, citing the jobs it would create.

A formal announcement is scheduled for Tuesday at the Lea County site of the proposed factory, but Cohen and other officials involved began publicly talking about the project this week.

If approved, the factory would be built by LES, a U.S. nuclear energy firm that is a partnership of the British-Dutch-German Urenco along with U.S. nuclear utilities Duke Power, Entergy and Exelon.

LES, formerly known as Louisiana Energy Services, was formed in 1989 to build a uranium processing plant in that state. That project was unsuccessful, as was a more recent effort announced last fall to site a plant in Trousdale County, Tennessee.

Trousdale County officials initially supported the plant, but that support dwindled last spring over concerns about waste from the project, and LES officials began scouting for a new home for their project.

The company is looking at a site near Eunice that was targeted four years ago for a similar factory being proposed by a different company.

At the time, USEC (formerly the U.S. Enrichment Corp.) wanted to use a new laser technology to process uranium. That project collapsed, in part, because of concerns about the viability of the technology.

But analysis done at the time showed the site would be a good place for a nuclear factory, Cohen said.

The new LES plant would use a technique developed and now used in Europe.

The project's first step will be to submit an application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that regulates commercial nuclear operations in the United States.

Cohen said he expects the approval process there to take two years.

Construction from that point would take five to seven years, he said.

Members of New Mexico's anti-nuclear community have been closely tracking the project and expect a fight.

"There will, no question, be opposition to this," said Geoff Petrie, waste programs director of the Santa Fe group Nuclear Watch New Mexico. Concerns include possible environmental contamination as well as questions about the need for the plant, Petrie said.

LES appears prepared for the battle. "We don't believe there will be environmental dangers," Cohen said.

The plant will take naturally occurring uranium from ore and extract the parts that are suitable for use in nuclear power plants.

Currently, all U.S. power plant uranium comes from USEC, which processes uranium in a plant in Kentucky originally built by the U.S. government.

If LES succeeds with the New Mexico project, U.S. nuclear power plant operators would have an alternative source of uranium for their fuel.

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