Moratorium pondered for depleted uranium

Salt Lake Tribune

Safety » Board asks lawyers to consider legal aspects of a hot-waste freeze.

A half dozen Utahns urged regulators to demand that the long-term safety of residents is assured before allowing any more depleted uranium to be buried in the state.

The message, part of an organized effort by the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL), landed before the Utah Radiation Control Board on Tuesday. And the panel asked its lawyers to begin looking at the legal implications of imposing a moratorium on the low-level radioactive waste disposal until that assurance can be made confidently.

"We, as a state, are vulnerable right now," said HEAL's Christopher Thomas.

EnergySolutions Inc.'s low-level radioactive waste-disposal site in Tooele County has accepted about 49,000 tons of depleted uranium over about two decades.

Right now, the material, the waste byproduct of uranium enrichment and bomb-making, is only mildly contaminated and falls well within state law to be no more radioactive than Class A waste.

But over time, depleted uranium "decays" or breaks down and become more hazardous, peaking in 1 million years. The depleted uranium at EnergySolutions, for instance, is expected to exceed the state's Class A hazard limits in about 35,000 years, according to the company.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is considering rules to determine how much depleted uranium can be buried in one place and still be safely treated as "Class A" and under what conditions, it should be required to meet tougher safety standards.

The issue is pressing because the U.S. Energy Department has about 700,000 tons of depleted uranium that needs to be disposed of now, and another 700,000 tons is expected to be generated by new uranium enrichment facilities that are coming on line.

Said Thomas: "We could take more of that material even before that [NRC] analysis is complete."

Thomas told board members that the waste will be as dangerous as Class C in about 200,000 years and will eventually be three times more dangerous than Class C waste.

Radiation board members wondered aloud whether a license restriction for the EnergySolutions site would be appropriate, or whether a regulation or some other means might be better for restricting depleted uranium until the state can be sure that it will remain safe in the long run.

Depleted uranium a hot topic

At issue » Whether to impose a moratorium on disposal of depleted uranium at EnergySolutions' Utah site. Nearly 50,000 tons already are buried there.

Background » Depleted uranium is only mildly contaminated now and falls within the Class A (least hazardous) Category allowed in Utah. But unlike other Class A materials, depleted uranium's byproducts become more hazardous over time, peaking in 1 million years.

What's next » The Utah Radiation Control Board has asked its attorneys to examine the legal implications of a moratorium.