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Fed agency gets more time on hot-waste info

Salt Lake Tribune

Hazard » Matheson wants answers on decision about depleted uranium.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been given more time to provide U.S. Reps. Jim Matheson and Edward J. Markey the memos, reports and other decision documents on the disposal of depleted uranium.

Alyson Heyrend, spokeswoman for the Utah Democrat, said agency staff was scrambling to pull together thousands of pages covered under the information request made two weeks ago. The documents were due Thursday.

"We think they are trying in good faith to meet the request," she said.

Matheson and the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee chairman, a Massachusetts Democrat, wrote to the NRC March 19, demanding to know what's behind the NRC's decision to keep depleted uranium in the lowest-hazard category for radioactive waste. It's a regulatory status that one commission member calls a "loophole." The congressmen want to know who and what influenced the NRC's thinking.

A commission vote March 18 set the stage for large volumes of depleted uranium to come to Utah and be buried at the EnergySolutions Inc. radioactive waste disposal site in Tooele County.

The Salt Lake City nuclear waste company has called the decision "sound science" and an affirmation that depleted uranium belongs in Class A, the least-hazardous category for low-level radioactive waste.

But critics say some depleted uranium is too dangerous for the Utah site, which is licensed to accept waste no more hazardous than "Class A."

Managing depleted uranium is unusually complicated. Its hazard can range from very low to very high. And the way its radiation decays over time actually makes it grow in hazard, so that it might be safe enough now to be treated like Class A waste but eventually can become hotter than Utah law allows.

The NRC plans to look at disposal of large volumes of depleted uranium on a case-by-case basis. Meanwhile, the NRC estimates that about 1.4 million tons of it needs disposal.