Apr. 6, 2007 – A so-called "nuclear renaissance" is budding in New Mexico with the construction of a major uranium-processing facility, but activists are waging a legal challenge in an attempt to stem the industryâ€™s resurgence.
The National Enrichment Facility, which obtained a license from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last June, would process mined uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors, and generate depleted uranium as waste. Upon completion, the NRC estimates, the plantâ€™s production capacity could meet "about 25 percent of the current and projected demand for enrichment services" nationwide.
Watchdog groups are challenging the license in court. Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) filed a complaint in the District of Columbia Appeals Court arguing that the NRC violated rules for evaluating the safety and environmental risks prior to granting the license.
The National Enrichment Facility project is owned and operated by Louisiana Energy Services, part a European energy-development consortium called Urenco. The corporations bill the estimated $1.5 billion facility as a way to move the country toward "energy independence." According to Urenco, the plant will use "gas-centrifuge technology," long employed in European countries but never before commercially implemented in the United States. Construction officially began last August at a site near two small New Mexico towns, Hobbs and Eunice.
Anti-nuclear groups say the project slipped through a botched licensing review process that sidestepped public oversight.
But Public Citizen and NIRS say that the project slipped through a botched licensing review process that sidestepped public oversight and ignored major environmental hazards posed by the facilityâ€™s waste-disposal strategy.
The legal dispute over the facility marks rising tensions over the Bush administrationâ€™s promotion of nuclear energy as one remedy to soaring fossil-fuel demands. Groups like Public Citizen say the environmental threats linked to nuclear power outweigh its benefits, advocating instead for conservation and other alternative fuel sources.
The groups question the companyâ€™s plan for final disposal of the depleted uranium, which may involve burying the radioactive waste about 5 feet below the surface at Energy Solutions, a commercial facility about 80 miles outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.
The NRC classifies the facilityâ€™s waste as "low level" and suited for shallow burial, but the opposition groups claim the agencyâ€™s assessment overrides regulatory standards. The lawsuit argues that the NRC narrowed the scope and timeframe of its risk evaluation to minimize factors that might lead to excess contamination on the site, such as short-term human activity like grazing or recreation, soil erosion, and exposure of the uranium over a long-term period.
Public Citizen and NIRS have pointed to a report by the public-interest research organization Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, published in 2005, which shows significant risks of harmful radiation doses, in excess of allowable standards, under the Energy Solutions disposal plan.
But the NRCâ€™s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which administers the licensing process, dismissed the groupsâ€™ claims in 2005, maintaining that the government had conducted a sufficiently thorough review of potential impacts on local water and soil.
Though depleted uranium is less radioactive than the enriched version, environmental exposure to uranium is regulated by federal authorities, and has been linked to cancer risk and reproductive disorders.
The brief filed by Public Citizen and NIRS also argues the license was issued illegally because the decision was in part based on last-minute "supplemental" environmental analyses that were never formally incorporated into the public-hearing process.
Louisiana Energy Services, which declined to comment for this article, has argued the National Enrichment Facility is needed to meet ever-growing domestic demand for energy. But groups like Public Citizen hope legal roadblocks lodged before the project might help check the overall expansion of the nuclear-power industry.
"We donâ€™t want the plant to be built. Thatâ€™s the bottom line," said Michele Boyd of Public Citizenâ€™s Energy Program. "But if the NRC is going to give a license, it better be worth the paper itâ€™s written on, and the one itâ€™s got right now is not."