Supporters of a proposed New Mexico nuclear fuel plant worked out a deal Saturday to try to head off controversy over the plant's nuclear waste.
The deal, announced by Gov. Bill Richardson's office Saturday afternoon, includes a written commitment from the company that wants to build the plant to remove the plant's nuclear waste "in a timely manner."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., agreed as part of the deal to sponsor legislation next year to help ensure the plant's waste is not left in New Mexico.
The agreement is aimed at calming a controversy over nuclear waste at a nuclear fuel factory being proposed by LES, an international nuclear industry consortium.
LES's proposed plant, near Eunice in southeastern New Mexico, would enrich uranium so that it could be turned into nuclear power plant fuel. Critics have complained the plant's radioactive waste could end up stored on the plant site indefinitely because there is no way to dispose of it.
In a letter to Richardson on Saturday outlining the details of the agreement, LES President Jim Ferland offered a series of commitments aimed at calming fears about the waste.
LES intends to work out a deal with a private company outside New Mexico to take care of the waste, Ferland wrote. There is currently no plant in the United States, public or private, capable of processing the waste for disposal. LES is in talks with private nuclear services companies about establishing such a capability in the United States.
To make sure waste does not pile up at the site indefinitely, "the concrete pad to be initially constructed on-site for the storage of (the waste) will only be of a size necessary to hold a few years' worth, no more," Ferland wrote.
LES also will post a bond worth $27 million each year the plant operates to ensure that there will be money available to deal with the waste.
Saturday's agreement is an attempt to untangle a controversy created by language included by Domenici in a proposed national energy policy bill considered earlier this month by Congress.
Critics have called the nuclear waste language in the bill a giveaway to LES and its competitor, nuclear fuel company USEC. Domenici's top energy aide denies the charge.
"We believe that it is unfortunate that this issue has arisen in a way that may confuse the public," Ferland wrote.
Democrats blocked the energy bill, but Domenici vowed to try to resurrect the legislation next year.
Richardson's office had been concerned about a provision in the bill that would give LES the legal right to ask the federal government to take responsibility for the waste. Because the federal government has no way to deal with the waste, Richardson feared that would mean the waste would end up sitting at the New Mexico factory forever.
That is the situation at two other fuel plants, one in Ohio and one in Kentucky. The plants were formerly owned by the U.S. government and are now operated by USEC, a private company created by the government in 1998 to take over the plants' operation.
The plants run uranium through a process called "enrichment" so that it can be used in nuclear power plant fuel.
Under the law that created USEC, the federal government is responsible for the waste created when the plants were run by the government, and USEC can pay the federal government to take responsibility for newly created waste.
The problem is that the waste requires processing before it can be taken to a low-level nuclear waste dump, and there is no place in the United States capable of doing that processing.
As a result, acres of old containers of radioactive waste are spread outside the Ohio and Kentucky plants, and critics of LES's proposed New Mexico plant fear the same thing can happen here.
Under the legislation proposed by Domenici, LES, a competitor of USEC's, would have the same right to pay the federal government to take its waste. The language was included in the energy bill in an effort to level the economic playing field between USEC and LES, said Alex Flint, Domenici's senior Energy Committee aide.
Richardson feared that if the U.S. government took responsibility for LES's waste, the waste could also end up left sitting at the southeastern New Mexico plant indefinitely.
LES officials Saturday said they do not intend to use the government waste disposal option given to them by Domenici's proposed legislative language, saying they prefer to work with a private contractor to set up a plant to process the waste for them.
"It's been LES's intention all along to find an appropriate disposal path, and that in our minds has always been a private facility," company spokesman Doug Turner said Saturday.
But Domenici has agreed to sponsor legislation next year to ensure that, if LES changes its position and decides to let the federal government take the waste off of its hands, the government will not leave the waste sitting at the LES site indefinitely.