MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations


On September 2, a symbolic groundbreaking was held in southeastern New Mexico for the "National Enrichment Facility," a plant to process uranium for use in commercial nuclear reactors. Participating were executives from Louisiana Energy Services, which would operate the plant, and state and local government officials, including Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, Rep. Steve Pearce, Governor Bill Richardson, among many others. They were expressing support for the jobs and economic benefits that they expect to come from the plant.

In 1989, LES had proposed to build the plant near Homer, Louisiana, but withdrew its license application in 1997 because of strong opposition. In 2002, LES announced that it would build the facility near Hartsville, Tennessee. Faced again with strong opposition, LES pulled out of Tennessee and came to New Mexico.

The facility is controversial for several reasons. First, from worker safety and environmental perspectives, the existing uranium enrichment facilities at Piketon, Ohio and Paducah, Kentucky are disasters. The many sick enrichment plant workers were a major reason that the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 was enacted. Containing soil and water contamination and more extensive cleanup of those sites will cost billions of dollars. LES would use a different enrichment technology - Urenco's European centrifuge rather than gaseous diffusion - so it maintains that the problems of the U.S. plants will not occur. LES also states that the centrifuge technology does not require the large amounts of electricity and water that the other two plants use. Nonetheless, there will be at least 75 acre-feet of water consumed each year and there will be continuous emissions of uranium into the air and water.

Second, about 90 percent of the uranium hexafluoride processed at the plant is waste, which is stored on site. However, there is no existing disposal site for the tons of LES wastes, nor the much larger amounts at Piketon and Paducah. The lack of a disposal site was a major concern to people in Tennessee, and was a major issue raised by Governor Richardson. On August 6, LES President James Ferland wrote the governor that "LES commits that there will be no disposal or long-term storage (beyond the life of the plant)…in the State of New Mexico." LES further committed to "ensuring that a disposal path outside the State of New Mexico is utilized as soon as possible" and to "put in place as a part of the NRC license a financial surety bonding mechanism that assures funding will be available..for the decontamination of the LES plant as well as the ultimate disposal" of the waste.

Third, transportation poses risks to many people. The uranium "feed" for the plant will likely come from Metropolis, Illinois or Ontario, Canada, and be trucked through much of the midwest and Texas. The enriched uranium will go where the nuclear utility buyers want to send - commercial fuel fabrication plants in Columbia, South Carolina or Richland, Washington, or even to foreign plants.

Fourth, new enrichment capacity is not needed, since the United States Enrichment Corporation operates the Paducah Plant but has closed its Piketon Plant and some U.S. nuclear utilities already get enriched uranium from abroad. LES officials maintain that they will not be taking away from the existing suppliers, but they also state that the new plant is not economical without $1.8 billion in Industrial Revenue Bonds that substantially reduces the taxes that they would pay in New Mexico.

While LES publicly maintains that it can meet all of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing requirements, it also privately went to Senator Domenici asking him to pass legislation to substantially weaken the licensing requirements and have the federal government take title and possession of its wastes. Those provisions and others were included in Section 637 of the National Energy Bill, which was made public for the first time only hours before it was to be passed by the House and Senate in late November. Because the Energy bill was stopped by a Senate filibuster, Section 637 has not become law, but LES still supports the provisions being enacted in some future legislation.

In December, LES plans to submit its license application to NRC, which will begin a process that will take 18 months or more, depending in significant part on the completeness and quality of the application and the amount of opposition. Affected people can become parties to the licensing process and raise "contentions" regarding inadequacies in the application. The NRC must also develop, based on the LES application and public comment, an environmental impact statement regarding the effects of the facility and a safety analysis report on worker safety issues.

New Mexicans for Department of Energy Accountability

New Mexico hosts three major Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons sites - Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad. Those facilities are essential to the nation's nuclear weapons complex. LANL has designed the majority of nuclear weapons, and Sandia designs all of the non-nuclear components of all bombs. WIPP is the only existing disposal facility for transuranic (plutonium-contaminated) wastes from DOE sites.

Many New Mexico citizen groups have initiated a multi-year campaign to address current issues, including the Bush administration nuclear weapons policies, continuing environmental concerns at all three sites, and the need for increased state regulation of the facilities and the unique knowledge of Governor Richardson, a former DOE Secretary.

New Mexicans for Department of Energy Accountability consists of a dozen New Mexico non-profit organizations working collaboratively to effectively monitor the three nuclear weapons facilities; advocate improved regulation, compliance, and enforcement at DOE sites to better protect public health and the environment; develop alternatives to current weapons programs; provide public education; and enhance citizen participation in decision making.

The newly formed collaboration brings together organizations that have long histories of work on nuclear weapons and waste issues with groups that have not previously been involved. Current members are: Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, Amigos Bravos, Citizen Action, Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, Citizens for Environmental Safeguards, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Creative Commotion: Voices for Social Change, Loretto Community, New Mexico Environmental Law Center, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, Southwest Research and Information Center, and Tribal Environmental Watch Alliance.

Additional groups will be joining in the collaboration, which is initiating a multi-year campaign to increase citizen awareness of and involvement. The kickoff public event was on November 16 in Santa Fe. About 500 people attended "Nuclear Policies, National Security, and New Mexico" to hear former Central Intelligence Agency Director Admiral Stansfield Turner (Ret.) discuss current nuclear weapons policies. Also speaking were Center for Defense Information (CDI) President Bruce Blair, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Phil Coyle, and Dr. Wayne Glass, former Defense Policy Advisor to Senator Bingaman.

For more information about New Mexicans for DOE Accountability, contact Don Hancock at SRIC: (505) 262-1862 or sricdon@earthlink.net.

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"Contrary to federal officials' vision of a largely vacant area, the West was never nearly empty enough. It contained too many residents who would, inevitably, be exposed to the pollution released by nuclear weapons programs. It also contained intricate ecosystems which, far from making for an "empty" place, ensured that radioactive and chemical waste would be absorbed into, distributed about, and concentrated within the landscape in quite complicated ways."
From The Atomic West

Edited by Bruce Hevly and John M. Findlay
University of Washington Press, 1998

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