EUNICE - In the little village of Eunice, uranium is welcome, but environmentalists are being told they're not.
Some townspeople say they don't want environmentalists and other protesters trying to speak for them at town meetings scheduled Wednesday and Thursday by Louisiana Energy Services, which has proposed to build a uranium enrichment plant here.
The so-called National Enrichment Facility, if approved, would be the size of a Super Wal-Mart and would turn uranium ore into reactor-grade uranium fuel - enriched 5 percent.
Townspeople in convenience stores, the local diner and at the golf course said they've grown up with environmental dangers far riskier than what Louisiana Energy Services says it's offering. They say they understand the risks.
"We've got enough oil and gas to blow up Lea (County)," said Scott Bateman, co-owner of Eunice Pump & Supply.
"Why would we be worried if we've got WIPP in our back yard?" his brother and business partner Mark Bateman said of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a nuclear-waste repository less than 30 minutes away.
Oil workers in Eunice carry hydrogen sulfide monitors in the oil fields. Hydrogen sulfide can kill a person in minutes and is also explosive.
"I wish people would educate themselves before they protest something like this," said Lea County Commissioner Darrold Stephenson.
Don Hancock of the Southwest Research & Information Center in Albuquerque said people in Eunice shouldn't be so quick to judge those who question the plan.
"We think, clearly, this is a bad idea," Hancock said.
He said the consortium is "trying to go someplace where the negative aspects will not have as much concern, or there are fewer people to react to it."
Louisiana Energy Services promises the plant won't contaminate the area.
But Hancock said it's "a water-using, water-polluting, air-polluting facility that'll essentially be used forever."
The consortium's two previous attempts to build a similar facility in Louisiana and Tennessee were halted after protesters got involved, detractors have said.
Sites like this are only allowed to expose people to 50 millirem per year of radiation, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Normal background radiation - that is, radiation people are exposed to in an everyday environment - is 300 millirem per year.
"This facility doesn't produce much effluent. We have ventilation, but the areas with uranium have a special ventilation system with HEPA and activated charcoal traps," said Rod Krich, LES vice president of nuclear engineering.
At similar plants in Europe, Krich said the company has seen about 10 grams of uranium escape annually at full capacity.
"Ten grams. That's a pretty small dose," said Tim Johnson, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission project manager for the site. "In fact, natural levels of uranium in surface and groundwater vary but are at those levels."
"I think when people get enlightened they'll not be scared of it," said Eunice City Councilor Jo Ann Davis.
In case of an accident, Krich said, all the uranium in the plant is sucked into a trap, and can be disposed of.
As for water contamination, the site is on a 600-foot-thick bed of practically impermeable red clay.
"Yeah, it'll use a hell of a lot of water. But if we don't use it, Texas will get it," said David Raines, local plant manager for Wallach Concrete Inc.
About 92 percent of the water will be used for cooling the building, Krich said. The rest will be for cleaning the plant and sanitary use.
Water exposed to radiation can be cleaned at the site with an evaporator, Krich said.
The depleted uranium byproduct will be held in cylinders at the plant until a "deconversion" site is built.
And Eunice clearly hopes more than uranium will be enriched.
The Enrichment Facility would bring new jobs and families that could start the town of 2,700 on a path toward economic recovery.
"As far as the Eunice Chamber of Commerce is concerned, it'd be good if (the plant) came next week," said Don Reese, the chamber's executive director.