The fate of 5,400 barrels of depleted uranium that have been sitting above ground in temporary storage at a disposal facility in Tooele County’s West Desert may soon be known.
The Utah Division of Radiation Control is set to release next week its evaluation of a 2011 performance study by EnergySolutions that concluded its Clive facility is a suitable final resting place for depleted uranium.
Following a 45-day public comment period that will start on Sept. 8, Rusty Lundberg, Division of Radiation Control director, will announce his decision to either accept the performance assessment and allow EnergySolutions to permanently store large quantities of depleted uranium at Clive, or to reject the assessment and deny EnergySolutions’ request.
He may also accept the assessment with conditions, according to Helge Gabert, project manager with the DRC.
A decision that will allow EnergySolutions to take large quantities of depleted uranium will not only end the four year limbo for the waste at Clive, but may also allow the company to receive more DU. That could be an economic surge for Tooele County, according to Tooele County Commissioner Jerry Hurst, who has served on the state’s Radiation Control Board for a year and a half.
“EnergySolutions may be able to bring back some of the people they laid off,” he said. “It will create jobs, which is good for them, good for us, good for everybody.”
Depleted uranium at Clive could also be a financial boom for the county, which receives mitigation fees from EnergySolutions based on the value of waste received there.
Hurst is convinced that EnergySolutions can store the controversial waste in a way that will not jeopardize the health of Tooele County citizens.
“EnergySolutions is prepared for it. They have the facility for it. They have the expertise,” he said. “It will be safe. Depleted uranium is rated as Class A waste. Clive is licensed for Class A waste.”
Christopher Thomas, director of the Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah, disagrees with Hurst. He says Clive is not a suitable, long-term depository for depleted uranium.
“Nuclear waste that grows increasingly dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years shouldn’t be heaped in a pile in the desert just below ground,” he said. “It should be buried deeply, safely away from future civilizations. During the hundreds of thousands of years that depleted uranium remains dangerous, the Clive site will be destroyed, sending the material widely into our environment. That’s unacceptable.”
Thomas is also leery of the performance assessment completed by EnergySolutions.
“The technical review commissioned by EnergySolutions is fatally flawed because it ignored several key scenarios about climate and future human activity,” he said. “We need our policymakers to take a step back from this narrow study and make the right decision to protect Utahns for literally hundreds of generations to come.”
Depleted uranium is unlike other forms of Class A waste received by Clive because depleted uranium becomes more radioactive as it decays.
Depleted uranium is created when natural occurring uranium is enriched for fuel or weapons. Natural uranium exists in two primary forms: U-238 and U-235.
U-235 is the usable form of uranium for fuel. It is used in reactors or in weapons. To make a product with a high enough concentration of U-235 to be usable, the natural uranium is processed or enriched and most of the U-235 is extracted.
The material left behind after processing is “depleted,” meaning it has proportionately less U-235 and proportionately more U-238.
According to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, depleted uranium retains its radioactivity for a long time. Uranium decays slowly, with a half-life ranging from millions to billions of years. While depleted uranium may meet Class A waste classification requirements prior to shipment and disposal, over a lengthy period of time its radioactivity levels may increase beyond Class A and Class C values of low level radioactive waste.
The depleted uranium in temporary storage at Clive is one of three train shipments that were slated to arrive at Clive in 2009 from the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It is left over from the production of atomic weapons during the cold war era.
Gov. Gary Herbert, in an 11th-hour attempt with the first shipment en route, reached an agreement with DOE on Dec. 22, 2009, to stop the shipment of depleted uranium to Utah until the state had time to develop regulations for its disposal.
The agreement called for the train that was en route to be unloaded at Clive and the depleted uranium to be temporarily stored, but not buried or permanently stored.
The governor’s action came while state regulators were in the middle of discussing potential changes to regulations on the disposal of large amounts of depleted uranium.
The radiation control board turned down the idea of a moratorium on depleted uranium disposal in Sept. 2009 while new rules were being formulated. This left the door open for EnergySolutions to accept shipments of depleted uranium because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission classifies it as Class A, the lowest level of radioactive waste.
The radiation control board voted in June 2010 to require EnergySolutions to complete a performance assessment to determine whether or not the company’s Clive facility is a suitable repository for depleted uranium for the next 10,000 years.
The performance assessment is an analysis that uses computer modeling to look at data concerning the physical characteristics of the site, possible future events such as earthquakes, meteors and ice ages, ongoing environmental processes, and the engineering of the site to determine if safety can be assured in the near and long-term future.
That assessment was completed and submitted one year later in June 2011.
The Division of Radiation Control hired an outside contractor to evaluate the performance assessment in August 2013.
Since that time, the division and EnergySolutions have had several exchanges of additional information as consultants worked to complete their report.
If EnergySolutions is allowed accept depleted uranium, the Department of Energy has 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in storage that may find its way to Clive.
However, Energy Solutions will be in competition for the DOE’s depleted uranium.
Just last week the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted to allow Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists to accept depleted uranium at its 1,398-acre waste disposal facility located on nearly 15,000 acres the company owns 360 miles west of Dallas in Andrews County, Texas.
Two public hearings will be held before Lundberg makes his decision. The first will be in Tooele County on Sep. 23 and the second will be in Salt Lake City on Sept. 24. The time and place of the hearings will be announced in the near future.
The Division of Radiation Control will advertise the open comment period and the public hearings in the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin and post the information on its website at www.radiationcontrol.utah.gov.