* New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson recently expressed concerns over the proposal by Louisiana Energy Services (LES) to construct and operate a uranium enrichment facility in southeastern New Mexico. Richardson previously supported the project assuming that none of the radioactive uranium enrichment waste remains in New Mexico. However, Richardson recently said that the license application submitted by LES to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not guarantee that the waste would not remain in the state.
Enrichment is a process by which uranium is separated into its component isotopes. Enriched uranium-235 is used as fuel for nuclear reactors. Uranium-238, also called depleted uranium, is waste. This waste must be reprocessed before it can be disposed. Although there are plans to build such a reprocessing facility in the U.S., there are currently hundreds of tons of depleted uranium waste waiting to be reprocessed in Kentucky and Ohio. It would be decades before LES's waste could be reprocessed, which would contradict their guarantee that no waste would remain in New Mexico longer than the 30-year life of the facility.
Richardson also said that New Mexico's Congressional delegation, which supports LES's proposal, has not done enough to ensure that the waste does not remain in the state. Richardson said, "I fail to see any language in the Congress that prohibits any disposal in New Mexico. I'm concerned about the NRC application."
Senator Pete Domenici, at LES's request, inserted language into last November's failed energy bill that would obligate the Department of Energy to take ownership of the LES waste if the facility is built. The bill received criticism from the Senate for having been written without bilateral support and for being too sympathetic to industry.
Domenici recently resurrected the bill, with the LES provision intact, to scrutiny from Senators and citizens alike. Joan Claybrook, of Public Citizen, said, "What we are seeing is the failure of our democratic system, thanks to the relentless force and influence of special interests.... Lawmakers must acknowledge defeat of this monstrous energy bill and begin again with a clean slate - this time, without the input of an industry more interested in profits than in providing for our common future needs."
Officials say that Richardson's disapproval could hamper the project. The enrichment facility requires approval from the state through air and water discharge permits. Jon Goldstein, of the New Mexico Environment Department, said, "Our understanding is that the NRC tends to weigh the state's feelings pretty heavily."
NRC has scheduled a meeting in Eunice to discuss the scope of the upcoming environmental impact statement for the facility. The meeting is meant to address issues that must be included in the statement. For example, the statement should discuss the environmental impacts of the continuous air emissions of uranium that would be released. Also, LES will have to address concerns about transportation of uranium from Illinois to New Mexico, water usage and the need for the facility. The meeting will be held on March 4, 2004 at 7 p.m. at the Eunice Community Center in Eunice.