NRC Holds Conference to Discuss License for Uranium Enrichment Facility

* The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) met in Hobbs, New Mexico this week to begin considering the issues raised about the uranium enrichment facility proposed for the area by Louisiana Energy Services (LES). Lawyers representing LES, the State of New Mexico and citizensı groups discussed the waste management strategy LES has proposed for the 188,400 metric tons of radioactive depleted uranium waste that the facility would produce.

The New Mexico Environment Department, Attorney Generalıs Office, and the citizens' groups, Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and Public Citizen, have all raised issues, called contentions, against the facility based on LES's waste disposal plans.

Uranium enrichment is a process by which uranium is separated into its component isotopes. Uranium-235, or enriched uranium, is used as fuel for nuclear reactors. Uranium-238, or depleted uranium, is waste. Depleted uranium must be treated before it can be disposed. There is neither a treatment facility in the U.S. to prepare the waste for disposal, nor is there a repository in which to dispose the waste.

LES, however, says that it is confident that such facilities will be built before the enrichment facility begins operating. Alternately, LES proposes that the Department of Energy (DOE) take ownership of the waste. That waste would then join the thousands of tons of depleted uranium awaiting disposal nationwide.

LES believes that these two options represent a plausible waste disposal strategy, which is all that is necessary to obtain a license. Lindsay Lovejoy, attorney for NIRS and Public Citizen, disagrees, saying, "There must be more than a dream or a hope. There must be a concrete proposal."

LES has also mentioned shipping the waste to Kazakhstan, in the former Soviet Union, or one mile over the Texas border to Waste Control Specialists, which is not licensed to store such waste. Marshall Cohen, of LES, said, "It is not a requirement, according to the [NRC] guidelines, that we set forth in there what will happen, partially because I think there is recognition that we're not even going to have any byproduct for five or more years. And it will accumulate very slowly, and there are a number of potential paths that could be taken."

However, Governor Bill Richardson has expressed that he will withdraw his support for the facility unless it is guaranteed that the waste will not remain in New Mexico. He has requested that Senator Pete Domenici introduce federal legislation requiring LES to remove the waste.

Michael Marriott, of NIRS, argues that such legislation would only be significant if it included funding for DOE to remove the waste. However, Marriott also points out that it would be difficult for DOE to find a state in which to store the waste, even temporarily. Marriott said, ³There's no scientific rationale to move it from one place in the country to another unless you're going to move it somewhere that's going to lead to its eventual disposal. And right now, that just isn't a feasible concept."

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