NRC Grants License for the National Enrichment Facility
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently issued a combined license that would allow for both the construction and operation of the National Enrichment Facility (NEF), which will be located near Eunice, New Mexico.
Louisiana Energy Services (LES) will run and operate the facility. It is a subsidiary of Urenco, a consortium of the Dutch government, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., several German utilities and two United States energy companies.
NEF will produce low-enriched uranium using a gas centrifuge system. The gas centrifuge system heats a chemical compound called uranium hexaflouride into gas and then separates the different uranium isotopes. NEF will generate both enriched uranium and chemically contaminated depleted uranium waste. The depleted uranium must remain on site until the NRC decides on a disposal policy. The facility will generate a far greater quantity of waste than enriched uranium. The waste will amount to approximately 4,800 tons per year.
LES has not yet provided a concrete disposal plan for the waste, nor a projected cost for that disposal. LES President Jim Ferland said that he believes shallow disposal will be sufficient. However, the waste is not typical low level waste. It is both radiologically and chemically hazardous because of the hydrogen fluoride used to make the compound necessary for the gas centrifuge enrichment process. This chemical is extremely hazardous when in gaseous state. And while it will be returned to solid state before storage, the waste must be protected from heat, such as fire or possibly the New Mexico desert.
D.C. based Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service were parties to the hearing. Due to the efforts of these groups, the NRC is currently conducting a review of depleted uranium disposal in order to create a policy for it. The NRC had not established what form of disposal would be necessary prior to awarding the operating permit to LES.
Michael Mariotte, of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said, "It took 17 years and attempts in three states for LES to obtain this license. But if the plant is built, New Mexicans will be paying--with their health and with their dollars--[for] the consequences of LES' waste for far, far longer than that."
Both critics and supporters of NEF believe that this facility is a stepping stone in the resurgence of nuclear power. In addition to enrichment, both a resumption of uranium mining and the construction of a nuclear power plant have been proposed for New Mexico. Senator Pete Domenici said, "Gaining this license is important, not only for construction, but for what this facility will mean for the renaissance of nuclear energy in this country."
Those opposed to a renaissance of nuclear energy are concerned about the environmental effects of such activities. Of particular concern is the threat to New Mexico’s dwindling water supplies. Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "Courting these industries, especially in a region that does not have the resources to support them, is irresponsible. All three activities, mining, centrifuge gas enrichment and nuclear power generation, use and contaminate large amounts of water. We must protect what we have."