The Utah Radiation Control Board voted 8-3 in their Tuesday meeting not to impose a moratorium on the disposal of depleted uranium that would have prevented the storage of the controversial material at EnergySolutions’ Clive facility.
The moratorium proposal was introduced at the July meeting of the state Radiation Control Board, but the board decided to postpone a decision until this month’s meeting so they could hear testimony from federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials who are in Salt Lake this week for their own meetings on depleted uranium.
“We were very pleased with the board’s vote,” said Jill Sigal, EnergySolutions executive vice president of government relations.
“It was evident that the board listened to the NRC staff that spoke at the meeting and testified that the storage of depleted uranium does not pose an imminent threat to health or public safety.”
The Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah, a non-profit environmental watchdog group, supported the moratorium. “We’ve watched as EnergySolutions has eroded public oversight, sued to remove Utah’s right to deny foreign nuclear waste, and threatened our state regulators into submission,” said Christopher Thomas, policy director for HEAL Utah. “At some point, the people of Utah need to wake up and realize that EnergySolutions doesn’t have our best interests at heart. They are a powerful and wealthy corporation, driven by profits, that simply won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. We saw that again with depleted uranium.”
“I really don’t believe moratoriums in general solve problems, they are more like a Band-Aid,” said Colleen Johnson, a Tooele County Commissioner and member of the Radiation Control Board who voted to not impose a moratorium. “In this case the moratorium would have a 180-day limit and we would have to find that there was an imminent threat to public health or safety.”
The process to institute a moratorium would involve more public hearings and take more time, and it was not something the board could implement immediately, according to Johnson.
“With the NRC staff stating that the depleted uranium was not an immediate threat and EnergySolutions voluntarily accepting an amendment to their permit requiring that the depleted uranium be buried deeper and given a thicker covering, I did not feel a moratorium was the best approach,” Johnson said. “If necessary we can regulate things by further amendments to their operating permit.”
Depleted uranium is created when naturally occurring uranium is enriched for fuel or weapons. Natural uranium exists in two primary forms, U-238 and U-235, with roughly 99 percent of natural uranium being of the U-238 variety. In the enrichment process, the U-235 is removed and used as fuel for reactors or in weapons, leaving behind U-238 depleted of U-235.
The NRC recently reaffirmed the classification of depleted uranium as low-level Class A radioactive waste, even though depleted uranium becomes more radioactive as it decays, unlike other forms of Class A waste received by Clive. When they reaffirmed the classification, the NRC also decided to study the disposal of large amounts of depleted uranium and develop new rules for its disposal. In the meantime, HEAL Utah sought the moratorium from the state to be effective until new federal guidelines are in place.
However, new federal rules on depleted uranium won’t be available until September 2012, according to Johnson.
HEAL Utah challenges EnergySolutions’ assertion that the company can safely dispose of depleted uranium. EnergySolutions has already accepted 49,000 tons of depleted uranium and is negotiating with contractors for the delivery of another 10,000 tons of depleted uranium to be shipped to Clive from the cleanup of a former nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina.
“We have been, are, and will continue to dispose of depleted uranium in a manner that is safe and protects health and the environment and complies with all regulations,” Sigal said.