Nuclear waste in search of home

Utah still resisting 5,408-drum trainload

A trainload of depleted uranium sent to Utah in December should be returned to Savannah River Site, according to environmental groups who contend the waste exceeds existing state standards for such material.

 

"There is no way in which the 5,000 drums sitting in Utah right now could fit under the low-level waste rule," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, during a news conference Wednesday in Utah. "I think these drums should be sent back."

In all, the U.S. Energy Department planned to ship about 15,000 barrels of depleted uranium to an EnergySolutions disposal site in Clive, Utah.

The first shipment -- 5,408 barrels -- arrived Dec. 17 and two additional trainloads were scheduled to be shipped this month.

Last week, however, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert asked federal authorities to halt additional shipments until Utah can complete a revision of its waste rules.

Makhijani and other scientists affiliated with the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah characterized the SRS waste as more sinister than typical commercial reactor low-level wastes because the depleted uranium is reprocessed material created during decades of nuclear weapons production.

"It's not your garden variety of depleted uranium from enrichment of fuel for nuclear power plants," said Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the alliance. "Our concern is that disposing of depleted uranium from nuclear waste reprocessing is a significant decision -- and warrants public debate and technical analysis."

The group also said the Energy Department should clarify an apparent contradiction over what it told EnergySolutions and what it told Herbert.

Herbert's spokesman has said the department agreed to remove the waste from Utah if tests conclude it is not acceptable.

However, EnergySolutions CEO Val Christensen told investors in a recent conference call that he had been assured by the department that the waste eventually would be buried in the Utah site.

"We're calling on the DOE to make clear its plans for the waste," Pierce said. "If it's not coming to Utah, it's important to know where it is going."

A report prepared by the group shows the reprocessed uranium stockpile exceeds by 300 times the amount of uranium considered for disposal under federal low-level waste rules. And because the reprocessed uranium contains a cocktail of regulated and unregulated radioisotopes, it cannot be considered Class A under current law.

"Other federal and state agencies are busy amending their regulations to make sure depleted uranium is disposed of safely, and the DOE tried to pre-empt these new health and safety standards by sending their waste here before new protections go into effect," Pierce said.

DOE officials have said the waste would have taken several more years to pack and ship, but the cleanup program was accelerated through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, which allocated $1.4 billion to SRS, mostly to speed up environmental management projects.

Energy Department spokeswoman Jen Stutsman said efforts to resolve the issues remain under study.

The process includes considering sites other than Utah and continued assessment of disposal criteria, the statement said.

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