Just Say Nuke

Southeastern New Mexico goes nuclear. Is that bad?

To Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, the recent federal approval of a uranium de-conversion plant near Hobbs only contributes to southeastern New Mexico's identity as a "wasteplex."

"The problem is that southeastern New Mexico seems to be unable to say no to any nuclear or toxic activity," he says. "I'm afraid that the more waste-oriented facilities are put there, the more likely it will be that there are more."

On Oct. 2, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a 40-year license to Idaho Falls-based International Isotopes Idaho, Inc. to construct and operate the plant. In a two-step process, the plant will de-convert the byproduct of enriched uranium hexafluoride—a compound that produces fuel for nuclear reactors and weapons—to extract fluorine. The fluorine will then be sold to manufacturers capable of using it to create products for the microelectronics and pharmaceutical industries, among others. The remaining uranium oxides are safer to dispose of than the original product.

"That process leaves behind depleted uranium oxide compounds that are more chemically stable…and are generally suitable for disposal as low-level radioactive waste," says a statement from the NRC.

The company scored good marks on its environmental impact statement. It stated that the plant will have "small" impacts on land use, water resources, ecological resources and noise, among other categories.

Still, the statement rated the plant's impact on air quality as "small to moderate," predicting around 6,373 tons of carbon dioxide emissions during a typical year of operation—equal to less than .01 percent of the state's total output in 2000.

Steve Laflin, the president of International Isotopes, says  the plant is environmentally friendly in that it will make use of residual uranium left over from the enrichment process. For every 10 pounds of natural uranium, he says, only one pound actually produces power. The new International Isotopes plant will take the remaining uranium "tails" and convert them into a chemical form more suitable for materials and storage.

Laflin says that the plant will begin construction next year, and be complete by 2014. The company, he says, already has a  contract with Urenco Limited— an enrichment facility in New Mexico owned by a British company—to purchase uranium tails.

"I look at ourselves more like an aluminum recycler," he says. "We're not creating cans out there, and we're certainly not the beverage companies."

But will the development of the plant encourage the market for nuclear waste in New Mexico?

Not according to Laflin, who says domestic demand for enriched uranium will increase as the US imports less of it from Russia. For years, through the Megatons to Megawatts Program established under a nonproliferation treaty, Russia has been dismantling its Cold War-era nuclear warheads. The highly enriched uranium inside them is then converted into a type of uranium more suitable for commercial use and exported to the US, helping to power nuclear reactors and produce electricity. That program is set to expire next year.

"What we really bring to the table is, we're the first commercial entity in the world that's trying to re-treat this material that's [as] environmentally friendly as possible," Laflin says.

To Mello, turning uranium hexafluoride into a more stable material for storage and resale is a good thing. Nevertheless, he notes, his broader concern is that New Mexico is already talked about in the halls of Washington, DC as a state where the rest of the country can do its "dirty work."

"Our delegation in Congress is so oriented to nuclear industries," he says, adding that politicians think: "So, why not send more to New Mexico?"

Laflin says that the company competitively scoped other states—including Texas, Idaho and Washington—for the plant's location. It factored in public perception and taxes. Officials, he says, met with local chambers of commerce, community leaders and former Gov. Bill Richardson. New Mexico scored the highest.

"It's still clearly radioactive material, and there's adverse opinion about that," Laflin says. "We didn't want to have to convince [communities], against public opinion, that we were safe."

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