Carlsbad Current-Argus
Carlsbad Current-Argus
Local News

Asbill confident Eunice uranium plant would be safe

Jul 7, 2005, 02:23 am

Walter Rubel
Current-Argus Santa Fe Bureau

SANTA FE — In the days immediately before the Waste Isolation Pilot plant opened in Eddy County, Sen. Vernon Asbill, R-Carlsbad, had himself tested for radiation. The senator repeated those tests last month prior to a visit to the Urenco Uranium Enrichment Plant in the Netherlands.

Another test was taken at the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center following his return, and Asbill said it showed no change.

While his own personal experiment may not prove conclusively that the Netherlands plant is safe, or ease the fears of those who have objected to a similar plant being proposed for Eunice, Asbill and Senate President Pro Tem Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City, both said they were reassured by the safety level at the plant and the comfort level of those living around it.

Altamirano said he was so convinced of the safety of the plant, he came home wishing it were being proposed for his hometown of Silver City, and not Eunice. He said he didn’t know much about the proposed Eunice plant before going on the trip, and was reassured by what he saw and heard.

The Urenco plant has been open since 1974, and has not had one incident that would have endangered the safety of the community, Altamirano said.

“It’s almost a foolproof installation,” he said.

Altamirano said the plant was originally built away from the city, but that over the years the people have moved in around it. The senator said he spoke with both scientists and blue-collar workers, and all were comfortable with the safety of the plant.

“They were all sold on the project,” he said. “That just gave me a real sense of satisfaction as far as safety for New Mexico.”

Other lawmakers who made the trip were Rep. Kiki Saavedra, D-Albuquerque; Rep. James Trujillo, D-Santa Fe; and Rep. Brian Moore, R-Clayton. The trip was paid for by Louisiana Energy Services, which is in the process of applying for the needed permits to open a plant in Eunice.

Asbill said that even though the trip was paid for by the company, lawmakers were able to roam freely and get the information they needed.

“We were able to ask questions of the citizens there without any company officials around,” he said. “We had plenty of time to meet with city officials and also city residents. We asked the business people and just people we’d meet up and down the street how they felt about it, and I got no negative reaction. And nobody else got a negative reaction.”

Jon Goldstein, a spokesman for the state Environment Department, said the proposed Eunice plant has permits pending with both the state, for ground water discharge, and with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

An agreement was reached between LES and the state last month on the storage of waste at the facility. The company agreed not to store more than 5,000 canisters of waste at the site, and no canister for more than 15 years.

Gov. Bill Richardson said at the time the agreement was announced that he was frustrated by the state’s inability to have a say in the NRC permitting process. Attorney General Patricia Madrid said the agreement will give LES a “strong financial incentive to prevent accumulating storage in New Mexico.”