State regulators intend to increase scrutiny of the
company pushing to develop a uranium-enrichment plant
in the southeast corner of the state.
This past summer, before Gov. Bill Richardson endorsed
Louisiana Energy Services' plans to build the $1.2
billion plant, the company assured him no radioactive
waste from the plant would remain in the state.
But without telling Richardson, Louisiana Energy
Services worked with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to
insert language in the federal energy-policy bill,
which died in Congress last month, that would have
required the U.S. Department of Energy to accept waste
from the plant.
New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry said
Thursday it was a mis take for Louisiana Energy
Services officials to work with Domenici on the
waste-disposal issue behind Richardson's back.
"I think the LES management made a serious blunder
with the energy bill and their connection with it,"
Curry said Thursday. "They had worked, and the state
had worked with them, to develop the trust. But when
that particular piece of language was put into the
energy bill, and no one in the state -- most
importantly the governor -- was made aware of it until
after the fact, that was unfortunate. Which is putting
Richardson still supports construction of the uranium
plant in the tiny village of Eunice, in Lea County,
out of respect for local interest in bringing jobs to
the area, Curry said. The federal Waste Isolation
Pilot Plant in nearby Carlsbad holds highly
radioactive wastes from government operations.
Richardson served as U.S. secretary of energy under
President Clinton when WIPP opened.
"The governor still wants the plant to continue with
its plans because the people of Eunice and Lea County
want it," Curry said. "But just like WIPP, he wants to
make sure that all the environmental safeguards are in
place. And that's what we're going to do."
Before Louisiana Energy Services can open its plant,
the company needs a permit from the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission. The company also needs air-quality and
water-discharge permits from the state. The company
has not applied for any permits.
The state will remain particularly vigilant in dealing
with the company to ensure nothing compromises the
state's ability to monitor its environmental
compliance, Curry said. And Richardson's
administration will make sure nothing stands in the
way of removing the waste from New Mexico.
"What the governor wants to make sure happens is that
the state doesn't miss any opportunity to look at them
environm entally in all aspects of their operation,"
Curry said. In addition to the state permits, he said,
the state will play a large role in the NRC-permit
New Mexico is also considering developing regulations
specifically aimed at the Louisiana Energy Services
plant that would allow the state to impose a fee on
the in-state generation of radioactive wastes, Curry
said. The state imposes similar fees on some types of
"We anticipate raising the bar on permitting (the
facility)," Curry said. In addition to looking at air
emissions from the plant, he said, the state expects
to project the effect of any possible leak of
radioactive wastes from canisters of stored materials
at the site.
Louisiana Energy Services president James Ferland said
Thursday he hadn't heard about the state's intention
to take a harder look at his company's operations.
"But we intend to comply with all the state
regulations, so I'm not sure that has a significant
impact on us," he said.
Asked whether he agrees with Curry's assessment that
it was a blunder for his company to work with Domenici
on waste disposal, Ferland said: "I don't really have
a comment on that until I have a chance to see what
Secretary Curry said."
Richardson's administration is unhappy about Louisiana
Energy Services' work with Domenici, but Ferland and
others from the company maintain Louisiana Energy
Services has never wavered in its commitment to remove
all its waste from New Mexico.
Even if Congress had allowed Louisiana Energy Services
to turn over waste to DOE, the company says its first
choice would be to hand off the waste to private
industry once a facility capable of handling it is
Domenici also has said he wouldn't allow DOE to keep
any waste from the Louisiana Energy Services plant in
New Mexico if the federal agency took control of it.
The question of what DOE would do with any additional
waste from the Louisiana Energy Services plant remains
DOE has decades of uranium-enrichment waste, called
tails, stockpiled at its former plants in Kentucky and
Ohio, and it has no facility to treat the waste to
make it safe for disposal. Waste from such plants
represents a massive liability for the federal
The U.S. General Accounting Office, the nonpartisan
investigative arm of Congress, reported last week that
DOE has spent $823 million since 1988 on its program
to clean up its Paducah, Ky., uranium-enrichment
plant. The plant turned out enriched uranium for the
federal government for decades before Congress turned
it over to private industry while retaining federal
responsibility for the cleanup.
DOE now estimates the cleanup of the Paducah plant
will take until 2019 and cost about $2 billion, the
GAO reports. But the cos t of decommissioning the plant
when it shuts down could run as high as $13 billion
Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information
Center in Albuquerque said Thursday he welcomes the
prospect of increased state monitoring of Louisiana
Energy Services' activities in the state. Hancock's
center has monitored the company's activities in New
Mexico, but he said specifics of Louisiana Energy
Services' plans won't be known until it files its
Hancock said he's concerned about the state's ability
to monitor the company's activities and permits since
this would be the first time New Mexico will have
undertaken such oversight. He suggested the state
consider increasing permit fees to cover its costs.
Hancock said he agrees Louisiana Energy Services
should have informed Richardson and others in New
Mexico of its work with Domenici on turning over waste
to the federal government.