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Environmentalists Oppose Plan for LES Uranium Plant

Sat September 20, 2003 - West Edition

EUNICE, NM (AP) A proposed uranium fuel factory for Lea County will bring sorely needed jobs to southeastern New Mexico, supporters said in September.

“We should have a very positive impact on Lea County and surrounding communities,” Louisiana Energy Services president James Ferland told four busloads of dignitaries, area residents and supporters gathered under a white tent on a flat section of desert chosen for the uranium enrichment plant.

The international consortium that plans the National Enrichment Facility decided on the site 5 mi. east of Eunice off N.M. 176 because of support from both elected officials and business leaders, Ferland said.

Construction could begin within three years.

Opponents, however, contend the proposed $1.2-billion factory — already blocked in two states — is an unneeded, water-hogging boondoggle that will generate nuclear waste with no place to go.

“This is not something that is a good thing,” Don Hancock, director of the Southwest Research and Information Center’s nuclear waste program, said from his Albuquerque office.

LES would build the factory as part of a group of U.S. utilities working with Urenco, a joint British-Dutch-German venture that is the consortium’s principal partner and developed the technology the factory would use to enrich uranium for commercial nuclear-powered electrical generating stations.

The consortium will apply for a Nuclear Regulator Commission license and a permit from the state Environmental Department, Ferland said.

Republican state Sen. Carroll Leavell of Jal said the ceremony marked a milestone in getting the plant. Lea County has been trying to attract such a factory since 1999, when the U.S. Enrichment Corp. proposed a similar plant.

“This proves that New Mexico has the right business climate,” Leavell said.

LES estimates the factory would employ 200 to 400 people during construction and 250 during operation. LES said the annual payroll will be about $10 million with an average salary of about $50,000.

There is only one other uranium enrichment facility in the United States — run by USEC Inc. in Paducah, KY.

Hancock said his environmental watchdog group will fight the plant, which met community resistance at locations previously proposed in Tennessee and Louisiana.

“The reason they went to Louisiana and Tennessee is they needed water. Where’s the New Mexico water coming from?” Hancock said.

He also questioned how much New Mexico and Lea County would subsidize the plant.

The United States had two uranium enrichment facilities during the Cold War but the federal government shut down one of them because it wasn’t needed, Hancock said.

“Why they need a new facility is beyond me,” he said. “So this is just going to be a huge boondoggle if it goes forward.’

But Oliver Kingsley of Chicago, president of Excelon Energy, which would be the largest U.S. customer of the plant, told those at the Eunice ceremony that current enrichment technology has been used since World War II, and is not as economical as the technology the new plant would use.

Ferland, in a letter to Gov. Bill Richardson, said there would be no disposal or long-term storage — beyond the life of the plant — of uranium byproduct cylinders in the state and that LES only would temporarily store cylinders onsite.

“The NRC license will only allow for storage and not disposal onsite,”and the company will aggressively pursue disposal outside the state, Ferland wrote.

But Hancock said that while the consortium is promising the governor that waste will not remain in New Mexico, the company has no place else to put it.

Richardson attended the ceremony along with Sens. Pete Domenici, R-NM, and Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, and Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM.

Domenici told the crowd: “No matter what the anti groups say, this is a safe project.”

Lea County, heavily dependent on the oil industry, has been trying to broaden its tax base to lessen the effects of the industry’s boom and bust cycles. Nearby Hobbs, for example, has been pushing to get a horse racetrack.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said the LES project will benefit the entire state.

“It’s like a vitamin B12; when you put it in one part of the body, it helps the whole body,” Lujan said.

LES agreed to a surety bond that provides funds for decontamination of the plant and ultimate disposal of any cylinders that may remain if the company defaults.

In April, LES announced it would review other sites after environmental groups opposed the company’s planned factory at Hartsville, TN. Environmentalists contended LES did not answer questions, including how it would handle leftover depleted uranium.

In 1998, LES abandoned a seven-year attempt to build the factory at Claiborne Parish, LA, after opponents accused it of targeting the area because it was predominantly poor and black.