Federal government grants license to N.M. uranium enrichment plant
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its first license for a major commercial nuclear facility in 30 years Friday, allowing an international consortium to build what would be the nation’s first private fuel source for commercial nuclear power plants.Construction of the $1.5 billion National Enrichment Facility, under review for the past 2 1/2 years, could begin in August, and the plant could be ready to sell enriched uranium by early 2009, said Jim Ferland, president of the consortium of nuclear companies, Louisiana Energy Services.The southeastern New Mexico plant would be near the small community of Eunice, where support for the project is strong. Critics say it would pollute the environment, guzzle scarce water and leave the town with tons of radioactive waste and nowhere to put it.Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. energy secretary, said Friday that although the state was largely excluded from the licensing process, he expects that an agreement state officials reached with LES will protect New Mexicans and their environment.A Kentucky facility owned by the Energy Department and operated by a privatized federal corporation is currently the only source of enriched uranium for commercial U.S. nuclear power plants.Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a longtime supporter of nuclear power, said the license was important not only for LES, “but for what this facility will mean for the renaissance of nuclear energy in this country.”Ferland said the nuclear power industry watched the plant’s licensing process closely, viewing it as a bellwether for them to consider applying for licenses for new nuclear power plants.”I think the industry will walk away from this … feeling quite comfortable,” he said.The NRC’s staff issued the license after rulings from a three-member panel of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. Last month, federal officials cleared one of the last legal hurdles – questions over waste disposal.Critics argued that disposal costs could leave New Mexico stuck with the project’s nuclear waste. But the board ruled May 31 that uncertainties over waste disposal costs are irrelevant; the agreement with New Mexico calls for hundreds of millions of dollars to be set aside for waste disposal.The plant would generate a form of waste that no U.S. disposal site can handle, and no U.S. processing facility exists that can convert the waste into lower-level radioactive material. The plant could run at full capacity for eight to 10 years before running out of onsite space for the material. LES has an agreement with a French company to build such a plant in this country, but no site has been selected and no license has been issued.LES is made up of European-based Urenco, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and minor U.S. partners. Ferland expects Urenco’s board to give final approval to the project when it meets July 5.Public Citizen is among the groups opposing the plant. A message left Friday evening for the Washington-based organization was not immediately returned.