Sunday, June 25, 2006
ALBUQUERQUE -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued its first license for a major commercial nuclear facility in 30 years, allowing an international consortium to build what will 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 James Ferland, president of the consortium of nuclear companies, Louisiana Energy Services.
The plant, licensed on Friday, will be built near the small southeastern New Mexico community of Eunice, where support for the project is strong. Critics say it will pollute the environment, guzzle scarce water and leave the town with tons of radioactive waste and nowhere to put it.
Although the state was largely excluded for the licensing process, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), a former energy secretary, said he expects that New Mexicans and their environment will be protected by an agreement state officials had reached with Louisiana Energy Services.
A Kentucky facility owned by the Energy Department and operated by a former federal corporation that has been privatized is currently the only source of enriched uranium for commercial U.S. nuclear power plants.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a longtime supporter of nuclear power, said the license is important not only for Louisiana Energy Services but also "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 license applications 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 commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. Last month, federal officials cleared one of the last legal hurdles -- questions about waste disposal.
Critics had contended 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 consortium's agreement with New Mexico calls for hundreds of millions of dollars to be set aside for waste disposal.
The plant will 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 on-site space for the material. Louisiana Energy has an agreement with a French company to build such a plant in the United States, but no site has been selected and no license has been issued.
Louisiana Energy Services is made up of the European firm Urenco, British Nuclear Fuels PLC and minor U.S. partners. Ferland expects Urenco's board of directors to give final approval to the project when it meets on July 5.