Ohio doesn't want waste from New Mexico plant

Jan 17 03:04

EUNICE, N.M. (AP) _ The list of potential disposal sites for waste from a proposed uranium enrichment plant here appears to be shrinking.

A new waste processing plant to be built in Ohio was one potential destination for waste.

But a letter from Ohio Gov. Bob Taft on Thursday to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that Ohio doesn't want it.

Taft's letter suggests significant hurdles stand in the way of sending the waste there.

The letter is the latest waste-related problem for international nuclear consortium LES, which wants to build a nuclear fuel plant.

LES filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month for a license to build and operate the plant, which would process uranium so it can be used in nuclear power plant fuel. The project's critics have focused primarily on unanswered questions about what will happen to the factory's radioactive waste.

While state officials here have generally endorsed the project, Gov. Bill Richardson has in recent months raised pointed questions about what the company will do with its waste.

Richardson said last month he would withdraw his support of the Louisiana Energy Services plant unless Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., inserted language in a federal appropriations bill requiring DOE to remove waste from New Mexico.

Chris Gallegos, a spokesman for Domenici, said this week the senator is looking for appropriate legislation to carry the language specifying that DOE could not leave waste in the state.

In its NRC application, LES spells out several ``plausible'' disposal plans ranging from dragging it a few miles across the state line to Texas to shipping it to Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union. The group says it will honor a commitment to Richardson to get the waste out of New Mexico by the end of the plant's 30-year lifespan.

But in its license application the company declines to commit to a specific waste disposal strategy.

Waste from the plant will be in a form that requires chemical processing before it can be legally disposed of as low-level radioactive waste. Because no such plant exists in the United States, more than 700,000 tons of similar waste is sitting at three U.S. government sites where uranium processing was done in the past.

LES officials say they would prefer to work with a private company to set up a new plant to process the waste. As no such private-sector plant exists in the United States, another option the company discusses in its NRC application is turning the waste over to the federal government for processing.

The government is building two plants to process old waste from previous U.S. government nuclear factory operations, and under the law LES has the legal right to pay the government to take its waste as well.

That is the option that worries Taft, because one of those government waste processing plants is being built in Ohio.

Ohio is already home to a large quantity of similar nuclear waste, and sending more ``would raise significant environmental and public safety issues that would need to be resolved,'' Taft wrote.

LES spokesman Marshall Cohen said Taft's letter does not concern the company, because their preferred option _ waste processing by a private company _ is unaffected.

LES officials say they expect the French energy giant Cogema to pursue plans to build a private deconversion plant in the United States.

Nuclear-watchdog groups warn that waste from a planned private uranium-enrichment plant will probably never leave New Mexico if the federal government allows production to start here.

AP-WS-01-17-04 0303EST