Many in New Mexico Embrace Plant That Will Generate Nuclear Waste

Santa Fe Reporter | June 2, 2004
Louisiana Energy Services has spent 15 years bouncing across America in the dogged pursuit of a home for its uranium enrichment plant, which will generate thousands of tons of toxic nuclear waste.

After citizen-led protests forced the company out of Louisiana and Tennessee, LES found an oasis last year shimmering in the desert of southeastern New Mexico—400 acres of state-owned ranchland dotted with sage and mesquite amidst the oil and gas fields of Lea County.

LES plans to build its $1.2 billion plant there to enrich uranium to sell as fuel for US nuclear power plants.

Despite the company’s troubled past, LES has been welcomed with open arms by many local, state and federal politicians in New Mexico. The Lea County Commission has sweetened the pot with up to $1.8 billion in tax incentives for the plant, even though LES still has no clearly defined plans for disposal of its nuclear waste. On the federal level, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ordered a fast-track licensing process for the Lea County plant, even though the New Mexico Environment Department fears the plant site could become an aboveground nuclear waste stockpile.

Yet unlike the storms of protest in Louisiana and Tennessee, LES faces no groundswell of opposition in Lea County. It’s more of a trickle, says Rose Gardner, a lifelong resident of Eunice, a town five miles west of the plant site. Gardner, who is married to a Eunice city councilor who voted to support LES, says many politicians are enamored by the promise of hundreds of new jobs and a boost to the local tax base, and they aren’t investigating LES’ questionable background or the possibility of radioactive air and water contamination.

“The company has a terrible, terrible legacy,” Gardner says. “It’s been very tiring and discouraging, but I feel I have to speak up. I’ve been told more than once this is the armpit of New Mexico, and I incline to believe that is even more the case now. I would use another ‘A’-word that wouldn’t be as polite.”

Gardner and a few other Lea County residents are following the same path of protest against LES as other neighbors-turned-activists in Louisiana and Tennessee. But Gardner isn’t convinced the activists will win this time. In New Mexico, the cards have been playing out in LES’ favor. In Louisiana and Tennessee, it was a different story—one the company is trying to forget.

“What happened there happened, and we live with that and accept that,” says Marshall Cohen, LES vice president of communications and government relations. “The way this company is doing things now is entirely different. We’re trying to move on and deal with what’s going on in New Mexico.”

But the company’s past could shed some light on the promises LES is making now about its future. Problems first surfaced for LES in the backwoods of northern Louisiana, where poor and elderly residents waged a nine-year legal battle which ultimately made history.

Essie Youngblood, an 84-year-old retired schoolteacher who never had any children of her own, was born and raised in a small house in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, where she still lives. In 1989, LES announced it would build its uranium enrichment plant next to Youngblood’s home, which would have dumped radioactive wastewater into a stream and cut off the main road connecting Center Springs and Forest Grove, two communities where 97 percent of the residents are black.

Forest Grove was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. Youngblood, who is herself the granddaughter of slaves, prepared plate lunches and helped with other fundraisers for Citizens Against Nuclear Trash, a local group that formed to fight the LES plant.

Norton Tompkins, an 82-year-old white retiree who became the group’s treasurer, gave Youngblood a nickname because of her ability to rally residents at short notice. “I always called her the Godfather because she was so well respected in the area out there that if Miss Essie asked you to jump off the cliff, they would almost do it,” Tompkins says. “They love her and respect her.”

Citizens Against Nuclear Trash contested the LES plant on grounds of environmental justice, and alleged LES had intentionally chose Claiborne Parish because it is predominantly black.

“It was said [LES employees] told some of the people we wouldn’t be able to hire a lawyer because nobody had any education,” Youngblood says. “We weren’t supposed to be any trouble at all.”

LES was formed by Urenco Ltd.—a European consortium of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., the Dutch government and several German nuclear utilities. Urenco, which operates three uranium enrichment facilities in Europe, wants to expand into the US market for nuclear power-plant fuel, but it didn’t anticipate the outcry from Claiborne Parish.

“They spent all this money, and they wanted some results from it. They said if they didn’t put it here, they wouldn’t have a chance to put it anywhere,” Youngblood says.

In 1997, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board issued a landmark ruling after it found evidence against LES that was “more than sufficient to raise a reasonable inference that racial considerations played some part in the site selection process.” The board ordered that NRC staff “must lift some rocks and look under them” in a renewed investigation of LES’ selection of Claiborne Parish.

LES appealed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which reversed the licensing board’s environmental-justice finding in 1998, holding that “such a free-ranging inquiry” would go beyond the requirements of federal law. However, the NRC upheld other findings against LES concerning the relocation of the road and possible impacts on property values from the proposed plant. By then, LES had had enough of Claiborne Parish and withdrew its license application with the NRC.

“We did not beat them, per se. They ran out of money and had to quit,” Tompkins says about LES. “They had spent from $34 million to $36 million with nothing to show for it.”

Youngblood attributes their success to both prayer and free legal help from the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, now called Earthjustice. The case was the first time the NRC had denied a permit based on citizen-group objections, according to Earthjustice.

“We prayed that the Lord would take care of us,” Youngblood says. “There are a lot of things involved if you want to fight something like that. It’s a big job. People kept telling us we would never win. They would tell us that to our face, and we kept working and we won.”

Cohen, who did not work for LES at that time, says, “The application process had taken so long the whole economics of the project no longer made sense.”

After raising more funds, LES resurfaced in Hartsville, Tennessee, in 2002. This time, no one raised any racial allegations. Instead, false statements by LES officials turned the town against the company.

Bill Badger bought his first computer after LES announced plans to relocate to Hartsville, a small town 40 miles northeast of Nashville where several manufacturing plants had closed in recent years. Badger borrowed money to keep his glass-and-mirror company running so he could take almost a year off to research and fight LES.

“We’re hillbillies. If we hit a deer on the road, we’ll eat it,” jokes Badger, a 46-year-old father of two sons who speaks with a lilting Southern twang. “I’m one of those people that had to be drug into the 21st century. I’d never been on the Internet before this thing. I think I’ve got a master’s degree now in uranium enrichment.”

Badger and other residents formed Citizens for Smart Choices, which went door to door informing citizens about LES’ plans. LES was drawn to Hartsville because the Tennessee Valley Authority already had completed environmental studies for a proposed nuclear power plant at a 250-acre site near the Cumberland River. The power plant never materialized, and the land was acquired by an economic development group comprised of several adjacent counties.

LES didn’t lack powerful backers, including former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist and several state legislators. The Trousdale County Commission gave preliminary approval for new industrial zoning for the LES plant, but the zoning required two separate votes and Citizens for Smart Choices packed hundreds of residents into commission meetings in the old county courthouse.

“There were a lot of influential people in Trousdale County who wanted it for the dollar signs,” Badger says about the LES plant. “It pitted brother against brother. It was like the Civil War reenacted.”

Jerry Clift, the Trousdale County executive who serves as both mayor and county manager, decided to enlist his own expert because of the growing safety concerns. Bill Rickman, a hazardous-waste consultant who had family in Trousdale County, traveled to the Netherlands to inspect Urenco’s uranium enrichment facility there. He found its operations did not jibe with promises LES officials were making in Hartsville.

Clift says LES officials originally promised there would be no radioactive emissions into the air or the Cumberland River from the plant. LES also claimed it had found a company willing to deconvert and dispose of its nuclear waste. The claims proved to be false, and LES balked when the Trousdale County Commission asked LES to commit to its original promises in a contract before the commission would hold the final zoning vote.

“Basically we were blowing them out of the water,” Badger says. “Everything they would say, we proved it was a lie.”

Will Callaway, executive director of the Nashville-based Tennessee Environmental Council, says LES never had a plan to dispose of its nuclear waste, and its wastewater discharges into the Cumberland River possibly could have jeopardized the drinking supply of more than 2 million people in Tennessee. “Hartsville likely would have become the de facto waste site for more than 250,000 tons of hazardous, radioactive waste over the life of the facility,” he says. “It would be decades before that waste would go anywhere.”

Former Gov. Sundquist weighed in on LES’ behalf, telling Clift that Hartsville would be more likely to get a coveted bypass to the nearest interstate highway if the plant was approved. “He never actually came out and threatened me,” Clift says. “He said it would probably make the road more realistic to have the industry here.”

But the county commission stuck to its guns. Even the promise of hundreds of jobs for local residents wasn’t a sure thing, Clift says. “They were going to ship in a lot of these people [from Europe]. We don’t have a lot of nuclear scientists living in this small town,” he says.

The debacle in Tennessee led to the resignations last May of three LES employees, including former LES President George Dials, who previously had managed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad from 1993 to 1998. Cohen, who was hired by LES at that time, concedes the company made inaccurate

statements in Hartsville. “That contributed significantly to serious problems with credibility and their ability to obtain the land,” he says. “It contributed obviously to the loss of public support for the company with the project.”

“That’s not the way we do business now,” Cohen says.

Since its plant couldn’t proceed without the industrial zoning, LES left Hartsville last year without ever applying to the NRC for a plant license. Even before the company left town last fall, Callaway knew the end was near for LES in Tennessee. He had heard that LES engineers were scouting potential plant sites in southeastern New Mexico.

LES was on the move again.

Last September, Gov. Bill Richardson, US Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), US Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and a host of local and state politicians crowded under white tents to welcome LES at its latest plant site, a barren, windswept expanse of desert and sand hills in Lea County. State Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons, whose agency owns the land to be used for the plant, said the $1.2 billion uranium enrichment facility was “the best thing to happen to Lea County since the oil strike in 1928.” Domenici called it a “banner day for Lea County and our state.”

As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Domenici is a powerful proponent of nuclear energy who lobbied aggressively for two years to get LES to move to New Mexico. The uranium enrichment plant fits into Domenici’s vision of a “nuclear corridor” in southeastern New Mexico, with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Domenici’s efforts to locate a proposed federal facility to build plutonium nuclear bomb triggers in Carlsbad.

Last fall, Domenici included a controversial provision in the failed energy bill that would have sped up the licensing process for the LES plant, limited environmental appeals and forced the US Department of Energy to accept LES’ nuclear waste more quickly. But US Sen. John McCain, the maverick Republican from Arizona, wasn’t buying it. In a Nov. 21 speech on the Senate floor, McCain called Domenici’s proposed legislation “the epitome of corporate welfare” and a pork project that was “almost in a class by itself.”

“Communities in other states did not want the LES facility in their backyard,” McCain said. “Allowing foreign companies with questionable reputations to circumvent longstanding environmental and nuclear regulations is just simply wrong.”

Domenici’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment from SFR.

McCain also questioned why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would approve a license for LES when its parent company Urenco “has been associated with leaks of uranium enrichment technology to Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan.” In the 1970s, former Urenco nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan stole uranium enrichment technology from Urenco in Europe and fled to his native Pakistan, where he helped devise Pakistan’s successful nuclear weapons program and became a national hero.

In February, on Pakistani state-run television, Khan confessed he also had provided nuclear weapons technology and equipment to North Korea, Iran and Libya. (Some US intelligence officials believe Khan also sold the technology to Iraq.) Cohen says Dutch security had cleared Khan to work for a Urenco

subcontractor before Khan stole the technology from Urenco.

Despite the past security lapses, the NRC has ruled that LES doesn’t need to make any specific plans for a possible terrorist attack on the Lea County plant because “the whole nature of terrorist attacks is extremely speculative,” says NRC staffer Tim Johnson, who is the LES licensing project manager. Cohen says the Lea County facility will be secured by an armed security force, double fencing and intrusion monitors.

On Jan. 30, the NRC approved an accelerated 30-month licensing timetable for LES. Because of the time constraints, NRC staff decided not to issue a draft safety evaluation for public comment on the Lea County plant, Johnson says. When asked why the NRC ordered the fast track, Johnson says, “They just said do it this way.”

Lea County officials say they will rely on the NRC to address any safety concerns about the plant, but some nuclear watchdog groups say that trust is misplaced.

“The NRC is often referred to as Nobody Really Cares,” says Michael Mariotte, executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, DC. “They do what they can to support the nuclear power industry. Currently, they are more aggressive at doing that than probably they ever have been before.”

LES ’ nebulous plan for disposal of its nuclear waste is by far the biggest problem for its Lea County plant. LES estimates more than 132,000 metric tons of nuclear waste will be generated during the 30-year life of the plant. That waste could end up sitting in containers on a concrete pad outside the plant for decades to come, according to Don Hancock, nuclear waste program director of Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.

“Creating more nuclear waste in New Mexico only makes New Mexico more appealing as a dump site to other nasty companies that can’t find anyplace to go,” he says.

Uranium must be mined and milled and then converted into uranium hexafluoride at a facility in Illinois before it can be enriched by LES. Uranium hexafluoride has a relatively low level of radioactivity, but is so toxic that even “exposure at low level may result in death,” according to its international chemical safety card. When exposed to moisture, uranium hexafluoride forms hydrofluoric acid, which can explode or be dispersed through the air.

LES plans to enrich uranium hexafluoride by spinning it through thousands of centrifuges, which gradually concentrate the fissionable uranium-235 isotope for use as fuel by nuclear power plants. The leftover waste, called depleted uranium or tailings, then must be deconverted to a more stable form before it can be disposed of safely. However, no commercial or government facilities exist in the US to deconvert the waste.

Gov. Richardson has sought public assurances from LES that its nuclear waste will be disposed of in a timely manner somewhere outside New Mexico. While LES has made a vague promise about storing only “a few years’ worth” of waste in Lea County, it ultimately will be up to the NRC to decide. However, the NRC already has ruled LES needs only a “plausible strategy” for nuclear waste disposal, which means the plant may be licensed even if LES hasn’t contracted with any commercial facilities to deconvert and dispose of its waste, says Johnson with the NRC.

Cohen says LES is in negotiations with Cogema, ConverDyne and one other company he wouldn’t name about possibly building a deconversion facility near the Lea County plant site. But Cohen admits LES still may require the US Department of Energy to take its nuclear waste if the private disposal plans fail to materialize. Under federal law,

DOE must accept LES’ low-level radioactive waste if LES requests it. LES would have to compensate DOE, but DOE doesn’t have any facilities to deconvert depleted uranium either. Plans are in the works to build two deconversion facilities in Kentucky and Ohio, but DOE estimates it will take at least 25 years to deconvert its own stockpile of more than 700,000 tons of depleted uranium.

LES estimates it will cost $731 million to dispose of all of its nuclear waste. But the New Mexico Environment Department has pegged the cost somewhere between $1.9 billion and $7.2 billion, and has questioned whether LES will have the needed funds.

LES and the Economic Development Corporation of Lea County paid for trips by local or state elected officials to tour Urenco’s uranium enrichment facility in Almelo, Netherlands. Unlike county officials from Hartsville, the fact-finding group didn’t take a hazardous waste expert with them, but they did speak with Urenco employees and Almelo residents about the plant there, says Lea County Commission Chairman Harry Teague.

“I was very impressed. I did not check any [radioactivity] monitors around to see what the air quality was. I just looked at the grass and the trees,” Teague says. “Poor companies don’t have company pride, and their employees had company pride.”

Teague says he also sought advice from one of his son’s friends, a senior studying nuclear engineering at University of New Mexico. Teague says the student told him the LES plant sounded like a wonderful idea. When asked if Lea County officials had investigated LES’ track record in Tennessee and Louisiana, Teague said, “I have read about that. To say I know enough to carry on a decent conversation, I don’t.” But LES representatives “intend to be completely honest this time, and they are going to do their level best to tell the whole truth,” Teague says.

In January, the Lea County Commission unanimously approved up to $1.8 billion in industrial revenue bonds for the LES plant because “we needed to make sure they chose here,” says County Manager Dennis Holmberg. The bonds will waive property taxes and some gross receipts and compensating taxes for LES, part of an ongoing trend of taxpayer-funded subsidies of the nuclear power industry. LES, which has agreed to make some payments in lieu of taxes to the county, also will be eligible

for a gross-receipts tax exemption from the Legislature for the sale of enriched uranium. “It’s just a process to take advantage of some tax incentives, as any company would,” Cohen says.

Lee Cheney, a 67-year-old retired businessman from Hobbs, formed Citizens Nuclear Information Center last October to fight LES, but he says the fledgling opposition has been overwhelmed by the fawning response of local and state officials to LES.

“The bottom line is they have been brainwashed. [LES representatives] wined them and dined them over in Almelo. They bought it hook, line and sinker,” Cheney says. “International money and power is big stuff. There’s not very much optimism about being able to stop them from people I know.”

The New Mexico Environment Department, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, Nuclear Information and Resource Service and Public Citizen all have raised contentions about LES’ waste-disposal plans, but the contentions are being challenged by either LES or NRC staff as not meeting NRC guidelines. LES also is seeking to prevent the Attorney General’s Office and the two nuclear watchdog groups from intervening in the licensing case. “We do believe their objective is to kill the project,” Cohen says about the two watchdog groups. The groups can make comments to the NRC, but allowing them to intervene in the licensing case “would only observe the objective of unnecessary delay,” Cohen says.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board plans to meet June 15 and 16 in Lea County to consider which groups or state agencies can intervene in the LES case. Under the fast-track timetable, the NRC is scheduled to issue a final decision on the Lea County plant in 2006, with construction to be completed in two years so the facility can open in 2008. Cohen says LES plans to train and hire as many local people as possible for an estimated 210 full-time jobs at the plant. He says many oil and gas field workers in Lea County already are familiar with

handling of hazardous waste.

Mariotte with Nuclear Information and Resource Service says the licensing battle over the LES plant really is “a battle over what our energy future is going to be.”

“Are we going to move to a sustainable future or mine and process uranium and run nuclear reactors and produce radioactive waste?” he says. “I hope the people in New Mexico will take the same look at what LES is doing as the people in Hartsville did. The people in Hartsville didn’t start out skeptical, but they sure ended up that way.”


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