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Midland Reporter-Telegram June 24, 2006

NRC issues draft license to uranium enrichment facility

Economic benefit seen for Andrews, region

By Ruth Campbell

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been authorized to issue a license for a uranium enrichment facility in Lea County, N.M., just across the state line from Andrews.

The $1.5 billion National Enrichment Facility, to be built by Louisiana Energy Services, would use gas centrifuge technology. This is when uranium hexafluoride gas is whirled inside complex rotor assemblies and centrifugal force pushes molecules containing to the heavier isotope to the outside, according to the globalsecurity.org Web site.

LES President Jim Ferland said this is the first private enrichment plant in U.S. that has gone through the NRC process.

Tim Johnson, project manager with the NRC for the National Enrichment Facility, said a draft license was sent to LES on Friday for its comment. Conditions, such as making sure financial assurance instruments were given to the NRC and updated, were included in the license draft.

Legally, Johnson said the NRC has 10 days to issue the license, even though appeals from environmental groups Nuclear Information Resource Services and Public Citizen, are pending.

"We think it can be issued in a couple of working days," Johnson said.

Andrews City Manager Glen Hackler had been expecting the LES license and received an e-mail that it was pending Friday. "The LES project is one that has broad-based support. It received resolutions of support from the city, county and industrial foundation," he said.

Hackler stressed much attention is paid to the economic development benefits of the uranium enrichment facility, but safety has always been a top concern for Andrews.

But the economic impact is tough to ignore. Within six to 12 months the number of construction jobs will total about 800 and at the peak of the project, about 1,200. Peak at around 300 employees and contractors running the facility, Ferland said.

A 50-member management team is already relocating to the area and setting up an office in Eunice, N.M., Hackler said. "Andrews is well positioned to benefit not only from the construction activity but the full-time employment," he said.

Hackler added he is pleased the facility will be licensed. "I think they did their due diligence. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission met with Andrews officials and the process has made us comfortable. They've been very deliberate and very savvy when it comes to nuclear expertise," he said, adding the commission also asked the tough questions.

"It offers tremendous opportunities not only to Andrews, Eunice and Hobbs, but the entire region," Hackler said.

After losing 2,000 people during the past 20 to 25 years, Hackler said the city is climbing back, adding 200 to 300 residents in the last year to year and a half. School enrollment, especially at the elementary level, has also grown.

Construction of four subdivisions with 30 to 40 homesites each is currently under way in Andrews and construction on rental duplexes is about to start. Five years ago, Andrews was seeing four to six homes a year built, and this year, he is expecting 40 to 50.

"We need rental property. We need new hotels and are offering economic incentives" to brand-name hotels that want to locate in Andrews, Hackler said.

The National Enrichment Facility was put on a "fast track" which took about 30 months from the time the application for license was submitted. "This was the schedule the commission had as a goal and we were able to meet that schedule, which I think is an accomplishment," Johnson said.

"Today the NEF became the first major commercial nuclear facility to be licensed in 30 years, and the first ever to receive a combined construction and operating license," Ferland said.

"This is a historic and remarkable achievement for our company, for the nuclear industry as a whole, and for the citizens and leaders of New Mexico, and Lea County especially, who have stood by us during this process," Ferland said.

Copyright 2006, MyWestTexas.com 2006