As the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) hosts a public meeting this evening in Eunice, New Mexico, on its environmental and safety evaluations of a proposed uranium enrichment plant near there, the legal challenge being pursued by citizens groups Public Citizen (PC) and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) is bringing to light the flawed radioactive waste disposal strategy of the company that is seeking a license to build and operate the plant.
PC and NIRS are engaged in an intervention against the license application of Louisiana Energy Services (LES), a European-led consortium, which they contend lacks a plausible strategy for the disposition and disposal of the very large quantities of depleted uranium (DU)a long-lived radioactive and hazardous wastethat would be produced by the plant. The issue has become the most contentious concern in the licensing case.
“There remain serious unresolved questions about the ultimate destination of the extremely harmful radioactive waste that would be produced by the LES plant,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass energy program. “Each option presented by LES and the NRC is flawed, and there is a great likelihood that the agreement between LES and the State of New Mexico to remove the plant’s waste from the State will not be enforced.”
Evaluations performed by Public Citizen and NIRS and their expert consultants at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research have shown that the waste disposal options presented by LES are not reasonable strategies to handle the massive amount of uranium waste that would be produced by the plant:
WCS option. LES has identified the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) site in West Texasless than two miles from the site of its proposed National Enrichment Facility (NEF)as a probable disposal destination for its DU waste. But an investigation performed by Public Citizen and NIRS experts reveals serious flaws in WCS’s application for a license to establish a long-term low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) dump at its Andrew County, Texas site. Gross inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the application demonstrate this company’s lack of fitness to accept waste from LES. Indeed, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the licensing authority in Texas, severely criticized WCS’s license application and site in a July 20 letter to the company, warning WCS that its facility design “appears inadequate to appropriately stabilize certain wastes for disposal, segregate different classes of radioactive waste, [and] verify by testing the accurate classification of waste received for disposal,” among other problems, such as an “inadequate” decommissioning plan, security plan, and emergency plan.
Envirocare option. Envirocare of Utah, LLC, a LLRW dump licensed by Utah to accept “Class A” waste for disposal, is cited in the NRC’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as a disposal option for LES. The NRC notes that Envirocare’s operating license authorizes it to accept DU in oxide form in such quantities as are expected to be produced by LES. However, recent changes in Envirocare’s operating license bring into question whether the company may legally accept waste from LES. In February 2005, Envirocare withdrew its application to accept “Class B” and “Class C” LLRWmore highly-radioactive formsfor disposal. Though the NRC has termed depleted uranium as low-level waste, it has not specified a subcategory, and Public Citizen and NIRS believe that its proper classification would be “Greater Than Class C” waste, which would preclude Envirocare as a disposal option. Moreover, it appears that an amendment to Envirocare’s operating license, formally adopted on June 13, 2005, would effectively prohibit the company from accepting depleted uranium waste in the great quantities that would be generated by LES, eliminating it as a disposal option.
DOE option. The final EIS cites the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada Test Site as a possible long-term disposal site for LES’s depleted uranium if ownership of the waste is transferred to the DOE. However, the DOE has an abysmal record of radioactive waste management, exemplified by the massive stockpiles of DU waste sitting idle at sites in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee as well as the department’s failure to properly manage the country’s high-level radioactive waste, which continues to accumulate at nuclear power plants across the country.
Flawed deal with the State of New Mexico. Having had most of its contentions excluded from hearing in the LES licensing case, the State of New Mexico has engaged in an effort to establish licensing conditions for LES that would require it to ultimately remove its DU waste from the State. However, the enforceability of the conditions that the parties agreed on is unclear, and the NRC rejected the initial agreement on those grounds. The parties have since offered a new Settlement Agreement that no longer includes as a licensing requirement the stipulation that the DOE not operate a DU processing plant or dispose of DU waste produced by LES within New Mexico. The DOE is required to accept the plant’s DU waste by law, and it is cited in the final EIS as a disposal option for LES. However, the NRC has made it clear that it does not have jurisdiction over DU waste once it is transferred to the DOE and could not possibly enforce a condition that DOE remove such waste from New Mexico.
Unrealistic cost estimates. The cost estimates offered by LES for DU processing and disposal are extremely low because they are based on these flawed and implausible disposal options. Proper disposal of LES’s DU wastein a deep geologic repositorywould raise LES’s waste disposal estimates exponentially.
“There is no established site in this country for the safe, long-term disposal of depleted uranium, and LES’s half-baked plans for disposal do not hold water,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS. “It would not be prudent to move forward with this new facility in the absence of a reasonable strategy for properly disposing of this waste.”
“The net result of LES’s flawed waste disposal plans is likely to be a legacy of long-lived radioactive waste contamination in New Mexico,” said Hauter.
Public Citizen and NIRS will continue to challenge the license application and waste disposal plans of LES in hearings set for this fall.