The Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) is the only deep-geologic permanent disposal facility in the US, and it is located approximately 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico in Eddy County. The WIPP facility is limited to the disposal of defense-generated transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste, i.e., materials that have come in contact with uranium and plutonium produced by the federal government in its research and production of nuclear weapons. WIPP is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and operated by a management & operations contractor for DOE (currently Washington TRU Solutions, LLC). In 1971, NM State Senator Joe Gant, Jr. contacted NM US Congressman Harold Runnells and suggested that the federal government investigate the underground salt beds located near Carlsbad as a location for radioactive waste disposal. Research on the WIPP site began in 1974, and in 1979 construction of the facility was authorized by Congress. Local support from the City of Carlsbad and Eddy County was consistent and strong from the beginning. At first the State of New Mexico was opposed to the project, but later transitioned to cautious support through oversight (state approval was required, and obtained, to dispose of that portion of TRU containing hazardous materials). After a lengthy period of construction, testing and additional review and approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), TRU radioactive waste began arriving at WIPP for permanent disposal in March 1999, and has continued since that time.
In 2002 and 2003, local community leaders and government officials in neighboring Lea County, New Mexico reached out to and convinced Louisiana Energy Services (LES) to re-locate its then-proposed National Enrichment Facility (NEF) to a site east of the City of Eunice approximately one mile from the border of the State of Texas. The NEF enriches uranium hexafluoride in the isotope U-235 (through a centrifugal process) up to five percent by weight for use as fuel in commercial nuclear power plants. An application for the required license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was submitted in December 2003 and approved in June 2006. Construction activities began shortly thereafter, and operations started in June 2010. Throughout the multi-year process associated with NEF siting, design, licensing, construction and now operation, the support of the State of New Mexico, Lea County, and the cities of Hobbs, Eunice and Jal (and many others) has remained constant and strong.
The success of the WIPP and NEF projects and their safety records convinced elected and appointed officials in Eddy County and Lea County, as well as private citizens, business representatives and members of the academic communities throughout the two counties to consider promoting the area for other nuclear endeavors. In August 2006, the City of Carlsbad and Eddy County and the City of Hobbs and Lea County teamed together to create Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, LLC (ELEA). Initially ENEA was created to secure federal funding from DOE to site the Nuclear Fuel Recycling Center and an Advanced Recycling Reactor under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in southeastern New Mexico. The ELEA site is comprised of 960 acres of land and is located in Lea County approximately 34 miles east of Carlsbad and approximately 37 miles west of Hobbs just north of NM State Highway 62/180.
In 2011, ELEA announced its interest in hosting a facility for the consolidated, long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) on the site controlled by ELEA. Eleven companies or groups of companies responded to ENEA’s initial request for interest. In February 2012, ENEA issued an additional request for interest, and is currently interviewing representatives from those companies and evaluating information received. On February 26, 2012, retired US Senator Pete Domenici from New Mexico expressed his strong support for the ELEA proposal in an interview with Platts Energy. Numerous other local and state officials in New Mexico have also commented favorably on the ELEA proposal. There is no other publicly available information regarding ELEA or its activities, although it is expected that additional details may be forthcoming at the National Nuclear Fuel Cycle Conference in Carlsbad on April 2-5, 2012.