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Public Interest Groups Seek Further Review on Nuclear Agency Decision to Dismiss Complaints on Environmental Issues in LES Case

June 8, 2005

Public Interest Groups Seek Further Review on Nuclear Agency Decision to Dismiss Complaints on Environmental Issues in LES Case

Second Hearing on Radioactive Waste Concerns to Come in Fall

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In response to a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) adjudicatory board’s decision announced today to dismiss the environmental contentions put forward against the nuclear company Louisiana Energy Services (LES), Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) announced that they intend to seek further review by the full commission and vigorously pursue the remaining issues that the board has yet to rule on — including concerns over radioactive waste disposal.

The objections concern LES’s plan to build a uranium enrichment plant in southeastern New Mexico.

“This ruling is a setback for the citizens of New Mexico, but we are determined to pursue our case against this plant,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The NRC has unfairly dismissed these important issues without resolution, and it has essentially forced the state out of the case. But we will steadfastly demand that these important concerns receive their due treatment.”

Public Citizen and NIRS, represented by attorney Lindsay Lovejoy of Santa Fe, presented the case for their “environmental” contentions in February at a hearing before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in Hobbs, New Mexico, near the site of LES’s proposed facility, dubbed the “National Enrichment Facility.” The groups argued that LES’s application for the facility is deficient in its consideration of the need for the facility, radioactive waste disposition and the impacts of the facility on groundwater resources. The licensing board announced its rejection of each separate contention in a memorandum but did not provide any detailed reasoning.

“We think the board has acted brashly in dismissing our claims so absolutely,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS.  “This may be an temporary boon for LES, but none of our complaints have been resolved—they have simply been ignored. LES is not out of the woods yet, since our main contentions on their waste disposal plans will be heard in October.”

The ruling comes in the wake of the state of New Mexico’s request to withdraw from the official NRC licensing proceeding and the state’s subsequent settlement with LES. The settlement agreement came about after the virtual exclusion of the state’s complaints from the formal NRC licensing proceeding.  “We have been shut out on every issue, [radioactive waste] storage and disposal, at the NRC licensing process,” said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, explaining the settlement.

The settlement requires LES to limit its onsite storage of depleted uranium waste—a toxic, radioactive substance—to about 5,000 cylinders containing roughly 14 tons of waste each. LES had proposed in its application a facility that could produce and store as many as 15,727 such cylinders.  The agreement also limits the length of storage to 15 years for each cylinder and requires LES to ultimately remove its waste from New Mexico or face fines. The company must also increase the “financial assurance” estimated for the disposition of depleted uranium. In return, the state has agreed to withdraw its contentions from the LES licensing hearing.

But removal of waste from the New Mexico may not be very meaningful; LES has identified a site in west Texas operated by Waste Control Specialists (WCS)—less than a mile from LES’s plant site in New Mexico—as the likely disposal site for its radioactive uranium waste. Evaluations by Public Citizen and NIRS have revealed gross inaccuracies in WCS’s application to establish a long-term radioactive waste dump.

The full decision by the licensing board contains proprietary information of LES and is not yet available in a redacted form; only a summary has been issued.

The “technical” contentions of Public Citizen and NIRS regarding important waste disposition concerns will be heard this fall.

For more information about LES, click here.