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Government Judicial Body Affirms Role of Citizens’ Groups in Licensing Hearing of Nuclear Plant

July 19, 2004

Government Judicial Body Affirms Role of Citizens’ Groups in Licensing Hearing of Nuclear Plant

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today’s ruling by a federal judicial board — affirming the participatory role of two public interest organizations in the upcoming licensing hearing for a proposed nuclear fuel plant in southeastern New Mexico — is a step in the right direction toward protecting the public interest, co-petitioners Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) said. 

The board accepted all but one of the groups’ complaints (called “contentions”) about the application of Louisiana Energy Services (LES), the multinational company seeking to build a uranium enrichment facility near Eunice, N.M. The plant would process uranium fuel for sale to operators of commercial nuclear power reactors.   The groups said that the company didn’t adequately address the environmental impacts of the plant, the disposal of the radioactive waste it would produce and other factors. Public Citizen and NIRS represent their members living near the site of the proposed facility.

    “We applaud the board’s ruling, which recognizes the validity of our complaints as well as our right to participate in this licensing process on behalf of our members in New Mexico,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, which petitioned jointly with NIRS to intervene in the licensing hearing.   “This is an important step to ensure that all parties’ concerns are heard before the government considers granting LES a permit for this plant.”

 The ruling came from a three-judge Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) appointed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency responsible for licensing and regulating the domestic nuclear industry.   The board will hear, in a courtroom-style proceeding, disputes arising from LES’s license application and other relevant documents.  The ASLB also admitted contentions from New Mexico’s attorney general and the state’s Environment Department.

 “We are elated that the people will get a voice in this hearing,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS.   “The substance of our contentions is strong; we believe it will be very difficult for LES to make a case before an impartial board that it should be allowed to operate this unnecessary nuclear facility.”

The board confirmed that the citizens’ groups will be able to formally participate in the licensing hearing by presenting their disputes regarding such issues as the need for the proposed plant, its possible impact on local water resources, LES’s uranium waste storage and disposal plan, and the company’s financial plan for dealing with the hazardous radioactive material produced by the facility during and after its period of operation.

 The ASLB accepted the following contentions:

  • LES’s application does not contain a complete or adequate assessment of the potential environmental impacts of the proposed project on ground and surface water, contrary to regulatory requirements.
  • The application does not contain a complete or adequate assessment of the potential environmental impacts of the proposed facility upon local water supplies, contrary to regulatory requirements. Further, to introduce a new industrial facility with significant water needs in an area with a projected water shortage runs counter to the federal responsibility to act “as a trustee of the environment for succeeding generations,” according to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
  • LES does not have a sound, reliable or plausible strategy for disposal of the large amounts of radioactive and hazardous depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) waste that the plant would produce.  Moreover, LES’s application seriously underestimates the costs and the feasibility of managing and disposing of the DUF6.
  • The application fails to discuss the impacts of construction and operation of facilities that will be required to manage the waste that would be produced by the plant.
  • LES has presented insufficient estimates of the costs of decommissioning the plant at the end of its useful life.
  • LES’s application does not adequately describe or weigh the environmental, social and economic impacts and costs of operating the facility, and LES inadequately considers the need for the facility.
  • The application does not contain a complete or adequate assessment of the potential environmental impacts of accidents involving natural gas transmission pipelines.

 The NRC’s licensing process is a formal legal procedure administered by the ASLB. Contentions must involve genuine disputes over factual issues – instances where LES might be in violation of federal regulations or where LES’s license application is incomplete or misleading. Contentions must be backed up by affidavits and testimony from expert witnesses – people who are acknowledged leaders in their fields.

 This is LES’s third attempt to secure a site for its proposed nuclear plant.   The company withdrew its application to build a similar plant in Louisiana after nearly a decade of intense citizen opposition and unfavorable rulings by an ASLB.  LES made another attempt to locate the plant in Tennessee, but was again expelled by local opponents before it had a chance to submit an application to the NRC.  Citizens were concerned about the company’s misleading statements and lack of a clear plan for the disposal of its waste.

 To read today’s ruling, click here.