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EnergySolutions' Utah site due trainloads of depleted uranium

Salt Lake Tribune

Environment » The U.S. Department of Energy will ship 14,800 barrels to Tooele County.

More trains filled with depleted uranium are coming to Utah.

Even as state regulators consider a moratorium on new shipments of the radioactive material -- which becomes more hazardous over time -- the U.S. Department of Energy plans to ship another 14,800 barrels of it to the EnergySolutions Inc. disposal site in Tooele County.

Part of the $1.6 billion in federal stimulus money for the Savannah River cleanup site in South Carolina will pay for rail cars filled with depleted uranium to be buried in Utah during the next 13 months.

"This is exactly the situation we were hoping to prevent by asking the state Radiation Control Board to enact a moratorium on depleted uranium," said Christopher Thomas of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.

The EnergySolutions site, about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, has buried 49,000 tons of depleted uranium waste from past cleanups nationwide.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission reaffirmed last spring that depleted uranium falls into the hazard category -- Class A -- permitted in Utah. But it also acknowledged that disposal of large amounts of the waste in shallow burial sites like the Tooele landfill might be unsafe in the long run without additional precautions. The NRC's review of the question is expected to take years.

The agency says depleted uranium peaks in hazard after a million years. EnergySolutions insists the waste at its site won't exceed the hazard levels set by the state for 35,000 years.

About 700,000 tons of depleted uranium is stockpiled by the federal government and another 700,000 tons is expected to be produced by new enrichment facilities coming online.

Company spokeswoman Jill Sigal restated that "EnergySolutions has been safely disposing of [depleted uranium] at Clive for many years."

"We will dispose of this shipment in a safe manner," she added, noting that the company asked the state Division of Radiation Control last month to amend its license to require extra-thick covers on all future shipments of concentrated depleted uranium.

DOE announced July 17 that Salt Lake City-based Cavanagh Services Group had received a $3.4 million contract to haul the waste from the South Carolina site to the specialized Clive landfill.

The announcement came three days after the radiation board, having received assurances by EnergySolutions officials that no new shipments of depleted uranium were expected anytime soon, opted to table its vote on a moratorium until it can meet with NRC staff in September.

Board member Pat Cone said it is unclear whether the NRC will decide in the long run that the EnergySolutions site, which lies in the basin of historic Lake Bonneville, is suitable for large amounts of depleted uranium.

"In the meantime, there's a race to put it there," he said. "It's disappointing for a -- quote -- 'good corporate citizen' to put this there even though they are within their rights."

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee are reviewing the NRC's decision on depleted uranium. Matheson said this week that the boxes of information provided by the agency still are being examined

Meanwhile, Thomas criticized the board's delay on the moratorium, noting that his group has been pushing for a harder look at depleted uranium for years.

"We've got a regulator [NRC] who's asleep at the wheel and a board that seems to be scared to provoke EnergySolutions' legal wrath," he said. "In the meantime, who's looking out for the people of Utah?"


What is depleted uranium?

Called "D.U." by some, depleted uranium is a waste product of the enrichment process with the unusual characteristic of becoming more hazardous as it decays.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has put D.U. in Class A, the classification for the least-hazardous type of low-level radioactive waste and material that, by definition, poses no risk to people or the environment after 100 years. But federal regulators also recognize the unusual nature of D.U. and have undertaken a review of what long-term protections need to be in place.

The NRC is staging round-table discussions, including Sept. 23-24 sessions in Salt Lake City, to gather public input.

For more information, see the Federal Register notice at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-14820.pdf