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Nuclear Waste May Go to Texas

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    The company proposing a nuclear fuel factory in southeastern New Mexico on Thursday announced a deal to try to solve the plant's uranium waste disposal bottleneck.
    The agreement, between Louisiana Energy Services and international nuclear giant AREVA Inc., calls for AREVA to build a plant to process the fuel factory's waste— possibly in West Texas at a site just across the state line from the proposed nuclear fuel factory.
    AREVA and LES executives explained details of their deal in interviews Thursday morning in LES's Albuquerque office.
    The use of the Texas site raises the possibility that the eventual dump for the processed waste might be across the state line.
    The deal is intended to address opposition from state officials concerned that New Mexico may get stuck with the plant's waste. But critics said it does not go far enough, because it is only a "memorandum of understanding" that does not legally commit LES to the plan.
    "Although this agreement represents the company's good faith, it doesn't yet provide the assurance that there will be no long-term storage of waste in New Mexico," Gov. Bill Richardson said in a statement issued by his office Thursday afternoon.
    Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., suggested one possibility that might satisfy the state's concerns: a condition in the fuel factory's Nuclear Regulatory Commission license that makes removing the waste from New Mexico a legal requirement.
    Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque said the possible Texas sites, because they are immediately adjacent to the New Mexico border, should not give any comfort to those, like Richardson, who have been trying to ensure the waste leaves New Mexico.
    "Taking waste that can't be in New Mexico (and putting it) 100 yards off the state line does not protect New Mexicans," Hancock said.
    The processing plant could expand the economic impact of the uranium operations, adding an additional 40 to 50 jobs in the Hobbs-Eunice area above and beyond the 200 or so the factory itself would create.
    The waste question has been a central point of controversy since LES in August 2003 proposed building the plant at a site outside Eunice in Lea County.
    The plant would process uranium hexafluoride, "enriching" it so that it can be used in nuclear power plant fuel. Because only a small portion of the material ends up being enriched, the rest must be thrown away.
    Over its 30-year life, the plant will produce an estimated 217,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride waste, according to a federal environmental impact study of the project.
    The problem faced by LES is that there is currently no way to dispose of the waste in the United States.
    Because it is radioactive, the uranium must eventually be sent to a radioactive waste dump of some kind. That can't be done until it is chemically treated to remove the fluorine, which is an extremely hazardous chemical. But there is no plant in the United States capable of removing the fluorine.
    The federal government is building plants in Kentucky and Ohio to treat a 60-year backlog of similar waste created at government-owned plants that processed uranium for U.S. nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.
    Under federal law, LES has the option of paying the federal government to treat waste from the proposed New Mexico plant. But Richardson has complained that option might leave New Mexico stuck with the waste indefinitely because of the enormous backlog of waste the federal plants are already committed to treat.
    The deal with AREVA is an attempt to avoid that problem by creating a private-sector alternative, built specifically to handle the LES waste.
    It would not accept waste from any other plants, said LES Vice President Marshall Cohen.
    AREVA is a major international nuclear conglomerate. Its COGEMA subsidiary operates a major plant in France that processes waste from European nuclear fuel plants. An AREVA subsidiary is also involved in the team building the two treatment plants for the U.S. government.
    The deal could fall apart in a number of ways, LES's critics said, including failure to get a federal license to operate, leaving federal government treatment of the waste as the plant's only option.
    "This is a PR thing to say everything's OK," said Hancock. "The piece of paper means nothing."