New Mexico's Exposure to Uranium Enrichment Byproduct Limited

SANTA FE, New Mexico, June 6, 2005 (ENS) - New Mexico officials have crafted an agreement with Louisiana Energy Services (LES) that requires the consortium to limit the storage and disposal of radioactive byproduct from a proposed uranium enrichment plant. The facility is planned for construction near Eunice, New Mexico in the southeast corner of the state, close to the Texas border.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Attorney General Patricia Madrid announced Friday that the agreement between the state and the consortium will be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board for federal approval. If approved, the agreement settles the state's legal objections to LES's application pending before the Commission.

The proposed billion dollar National Enrichment Facility would process uranium so it can be used in nuclear power plant fuel. Enrichment processes generate a product of up to five percent U-235 for use as nuclear fuel and a byproduct of depleted uranium.


The jobs that would be created by a uranium enrichment facility look good to the small town of Eunice, New Mexico, which is located near a large oil refinery. (Photo courtesy NMET)
The agreement requires LES to limit its storage to about 5,000 cylinders of depleted uranium, equivalent to eight to 10 years of enrichment at full capacity. This is a 67 percent reduction from the amount of storage requested by the consortium in its license application to the NRC.

Under the terms of the agreement, if storage exceeds this amount, the facility must cease all operations that generate new byproducts. No single container may be stored more than 15 years in total. All byproduct must be converted or disposed of outside of New Mexico.

The agreement contains specific measures that will assure that the state has full funding available to clean up the plant in the event of a default.

Richardson and Madrid expressed support for the agreement, which they say protects New Mexico citizens and the environment.

"When the LES project was announced nearly two years ago, I insisted on strong conditions limiting the storage and disposal of its byproducts. We can't afford to allow radioactive byproducts to build up in New Mexico as they have in other states," said Richardson, who served as energy secretary in the Clinton administration.

The state does not have the opportunity to provide input during the NRC licensing process, but Richardson said the agreement goes "far beyond" what the state could have achieved through the federal licensing process.

"By working directly with LES we have created binding license conditions that protect New Mexico citizens and the environment," said the governor.


New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is a former Congressman, UN Ambassador, and U.S. Energy Secretary, and he currently chairs the Democratic Governorsí Association. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
"The facility will have less than one-third as much storage space as it was designed to have, the company will quickly and safely transport and dispose of its byproducts out of state, and the facility faces $5,000 a day fines and will shut down if the company fails to comply with these conditions," he said, urging federal officials to adopt the agreement.

"Now LES will have a strong financial incentive to prevent accumulating storage in New Mexico and LES will provide sufficient funds to ensure that the State of New Mexico will not have to bear the responsibility for any disposal of the radioactive byproduct," said Madrid. "The state is guaranteed a meaningful role in enforcing LES' responsibilities to the citizens of New Mexico."

The agreement limits conditions under which LES could transfer byproduct to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which has other sites in the state, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant facility in Carlsbad, 60 miles east of Eunice, which accepts radioactive transuranic waste.

Depleted uranium has some commercial applications in counterweights and antitank armaments, but commercial demand for depleted uranium is much less than the amounts generated. The DOE has about 750,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in storage at three sites around the country.

The LES partnership consists of the European consortium Urenco, Exelon, Duke Power, Entergy, and Westinghouse, a wholly owned subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.


Depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6) is stored in large steel cylinders. Most cylinders contain 14 tons of solid and gaseous material. (Two photos courtesy Argonne National Laboratory)
The partnership intends to use Urenco's sixth generation gas centrifuge technology that is currently being used in Europe. Urenco has a capacity of about 15 percent of the world's uranium enrichment market.

Richardson also expressed concern about international nuclear proliferation issues related to uranium enrichmen directly to the NRC. He says the agreement contains "basic requirements regarding LES compliance with standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency."


UF6 storage cylinders show corrosion from outdoor storage.
Environmental groups that oppose the LES enrichment plant in New Mexico say depleted uranium is more hazardous to human health than previously believed. Research findings in a February report from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) indicate that depleted uranium may be mutagenic, tumorigenic, teratogenic, cytotoxic, and neurotoxic.

It may also cross the placenta and harm the fetus in the womb, the groups warn. "There is also research that indicates that the chemical and radiological toxicities of uranium may, in some cases, be acting in a synergistic manner." Federal regulations limit uranium inhalation based on cancer risk and drinking water intake based mainly on kidney toxicity.

The groups warn that shipping the radioactive byproduct out of New Mexico does not eliminate it as a hazard. "LES may consider shallow land disposal as option; sites in Utah or in Texas just across the border from LES site in New Mexico may be considered," they suggest.

In July 2004, an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that seven of eight contentions brought by NIRS and the nonprofit organization Public Citizen would be heard in formal hearings over the next two years. These issues include radioactive waste disposal, decommissioning cost estimates, and water use.

LES has proposed similar uranium enrichment projects in Louisiana and Tennessee that were abandoned because of community opposition.

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