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Keep Blended Waste Out of Utah

Ever since the Utah State legislature passed its strong ban on Class B and C nuclear waste in 2005, EnergySolutions has sought repeatedly to circumvent the ban and bring hotter and riskier waste to its facility in Clive.

Its most recent effort is SempraSafe, a joint venture with another nuclear waste company called Studsvik. They plan to bring Class B and Class C nuclear power plant waste (specifically, crud called ion exchange resins) to a facility in Tennessee, to treat it, and mix it with Class A waste such that the resulting mixture still fits under Utah's Class A limits.

That sounds like an effort to get around Utah's ban on hotter radioactive waste, right? We agree -- and we're not alone. In the past, regulators and elected officials from the Division of Radiation Control, to the Radiation Control Board, to Governor Herbert himself have all come out in opposition to down-blending, on the grounds that it was a clear bid to sneak hotter waste into the Clive facility.

Which is why it's so puzzling that the Division of Radiation Control, as of September 2011, appears poised to give EnergySolutions the go-ahead to immediately begin dumping SempraSafe waste in Utah.

Below, we explain in detail why HEAL and our supporters are convinced that's a terrible policy decision. And we'll be making that clear to both regulators and Gov. Herbert -- who has been granted the power by the courts to keep such waste out of Utah. Stay tuned for a Community Night, action alerts and other blended waste activities.

Here's why we must fight to keep blended waste out of Utah:

Blending could result in a significant and potentially massive increase in the radioactivity brought to Utah. What’s startling about EnergySolutions’ blending bid is how little information they’re sharing about the plan: Nowhere, does the company offer any detail on how much additional radioactivity could come to Utah.

However, we can make an educated guess. Data from EPRI, a utility trade organization, tell us that each year, nuclear power plants produce resins with 43,800 curies of radioactivity. In 2010, EnergySolutions disposed of only 7,450 curies in Utah, a number slightly higher than in the previous two years.

Some of those 43,800 curies already come to Utah (some resins are class A) but quick calculations – data, again, which EnergySolutions hasn’t even shared with the Division – suggest that approving SempraSafe blending could result in a nearly five-fold increase of radioactivity brought to Utah each year.

It's an alarming increase. It is appalling that the state is contemplating a full disclosure of data from EnergySolutions before giving the go-ahead to SempraSafe.

Blending is clearly an effort to evade Utah’s strong laws limiting hotter radioactive waste and subsequent policy statements opposing waste blending.

Ever since the Utah legislature overwhelmingly passed its ban on Class B and Class C waste in 2005, many stakeholders have made clear they oppose efforts by EnergySolutions to evade that ban. In 2010, the Radiation Control Board approved a policy statement “opposed to waste blending when the intent is to alter the waste classification for the purposes of disposal site access.” In Jan. 2010, former Division of Radiation Control chief Dane Finerfrock wrote that, “Utah is opposed to waste blending as the intent is to alter the waste classification for the purposes of disposal site access.” That same month, according to minutes of the Radiation Control Board, “The Governor agreed with the Division’s comments. The Division opposed waste blending for the intent to alter waste classification.”

It is overwhelmingly clear that all the key players in Utah’s regulatory process – the Board, the Division and the Governor – have expressed opposition to waste-blending. That leaves one question: Is SempraSafe waste-blending?

Ever-slippery EnergySolutions has sought in recent months to re-brand the process. But back in February 2011, when they first applied to begin using SempraSafe, EnergySolutions used the words “blended” or “blending” 16 times. By July, EnergySolutions was avoiding the term, asserting that SempraSafe is a “treatment process, not blending.”

The company didn’t elaborate further, but their explanation doesn’t stand up. EnergySolutions proposes to take hotter resins from nuclear power plants, to combine them with lower-activity radioactive waste and to then dispose of the resulting product in Clive. Every regulatory body involved in the nuclear waste process – from the federal NRC to the state Division and Board – have chosen repeatedly and unequivocally to call this blending.

State law requires that the State of Utah order a full technical review before approving blending. What we find most surprising about the Division’s apparent willingness to approve SempraSafe is that the Board’s new rules ordering performance assessments for unique waste streams (R-313-25-8) clearly apply. We think many parts of the rules apply, but first we'd point to part (a), which says that the Division must order a performance assessment if the waste stream wasn’t considered back in 1981 when the NRC developed its rules on low-level radioactive waste.

EnergySolutions claims the NRC did fully consider blended waste and thus no performance assessment is necessary. We are puzzled by this argument, given that the NRC itself, in recent memos, has clearly acknowledged that this “unique waste” stream does require additional scrutiny and rule-making.

In just one example (there are at least a dozen), in its March 17 “Guidance for Reviewing Proposals for Large-Scale Blending of Low-Level Radioactive Waste,” the NRC writes, “The NRC did not consider the disposal of significant volumes of waste at one of the classification limits during the original development of the Part 61 waste classification system.” Later, in the same paragraph, the NRC writes that blended waste, “is different from the waste that NRC considered in the original analysis.”

Stay tuned for more on blended waste: This is a fight we must fight--and win!