Louisiana Energy Services, the consortium hoping to build a uranium enrichment plant near Eunice, has restated its commitment to removing the proposed facility's radioactive waste from New Mexico -- even if they decide to sell it to the Department of Energy.
The $1.8 billion plant, if built, would enrich uranium into nuclear fuel for use in power plants. Critics say that the waste products have nowhere to go, are dangerous and could end up stored nea
r Eunice in perpetuity.
In a letter sent to Gov. Bill Richardson on Saturday, LES president Jim Ferland laid out a series of promises aimed at dispelling fears and reaffirming pledges the company has made.
His letter came in response to recent publicity concerning a proposed energy bill now stalled in Congress.
"There will be no disposal or long-term storage (beyond the life of the plant) of uranium by-product cylinders in the state of New Mexico," Ferland said, promising to find an out-of-state disposal path as soon as possible.
As yet, the U.S. does not have a "deconversion" facility capable of processing the waste into a safer, stable form suitable for dumping at a low-level nuclear waste depository.
And while a provision in the stalled energy bill before the U.S. Senate would allow the DOE to buy the waste, critics derided it as a subsidy and claimed such sales could result in the waste going anywhere the DOE wants to put it -- including New Mexico.
"LES will exercise the DOE option only if DOE commits to never store the (waste) permanently in New Mexico and DOE further agrees to remove the (waste) from New Mexico in a timely manner," LES president Jim Ferland wrote.
He stressed, however, that the ideal situation was to find a private company that would build a deconversion plant, though he recognized that such an option might not be available.
Ferland said LES would give itself a time limit of five years' operation near Eunice before they would sell waste to the DOE -- should the option ever become open to them.
And he promised that LES could assist any qualified company that wants to build a deconversion plant with the possible long-term contracts to help financing efforts
He also assured the governor that the DOE was aware of its position.
"It is unfortunate that this issue has arisen in a way that may confuse the public about our commitment regarding disposition," Ferland wrote.
LES is also planning to post a $27 million surety bond each year the plant operates to guarantee safe waste disposal even if the company is a commercial failure.
LES spokesman Douglas Turner said that the letter gave more details about promises they had already made.
"It is reaffirming the company's commitment to the state and the governor regarding its intentions for dealing with the uranium by-product," Turner said. "There was some concern put out by the press in Washington and elsewhere that language in the Energy Bill, which is of course now stalled, would have changed what the company was planning to do."
Concerned about the effect of what he termed "flak" stories, Turner said it was important to make the facts clear.
Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said that the governor wanted to make sure LES would "make good" on their promises.
"If the energy bill does pass, the governor's major concern was that at some point, LES would turn over the waste to the DOE," Gallegos said.
LES's new commitment amounted to them only selling to the DOE if the DOE makes the same promises they have not to store the waste in New Mexico.
"That's the bottom line," Gallegos said.
Currently, the DOE owns almost a million tons of uranium tails, held at storage facilities in Portsmouth, Ohio, and Paducah, Ky. The DOE plans to construct its own deconversion facilities.
Such arrangement may even become law as Sen. Pete Domenici, R.-N.M., has agreed to sponsor legislation that could mandate the waste's removal from the state.
Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, also added the Energy Bill provision that would allow the sale of uranium tails to the DOE.
Domenici's proposed law would "under no circumstances" allow the waste to stay in New Mexico, Gallegos said.
LES is in the process of applying with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build and an operate the plant.