The Utah Waste Management and Radiation Control Board heard from proponents and opponents of disposing of depleted uranium from dismantled military munitions in Tooele County’s West Deseret during its Thursday meeting at the Department of Environmental Quality in Salt Lake City.
If approved, EnergySolutions’ Clive Facility will receive 10,000 tons of depleted uranium metal over a 4-year period from the U.S. Army.
“The urgency is the Army is already dismantling the munitions and looking for a disposal location,” said Tim Orton, an environmental engineer with EnergySolutions.
Some of the depleted uranium munitions are already in Tooele County at the Tooele Army Depot. Depleted uranium from munitions at the Crane Army Ammunition Activity in Crane, Indiana, would also come to Utah if EnergySolutions is allowed to take the waste.
During the process of refining uranium ore, the most fissionable uranium isotopes are removed from the ore. The extracted ore is used for fuel for nuclear reactors and for nuclear weapons.
The remaining ore, which is left with less radioactive isotopes, has 58 percent of the specific radioactivity of natural uranium. This leftover ore is called depleted uranium.
Almost twice as dense as lead, depleted uranium is used by the military to make munitions designed to penetrate armour plate.
The Utah Radiation Control Board adopted a rule that requires a performance assessment before a facility can accept more than one metric ton of concentrated depleted uranium. Utah administrative code also allows for EnergySolutions to request an exemption from the rule.
EnergySolutions has undergone previous seven performance assessments that have determined that the facility can safely accept and store Class A low-level radioactive waste, including depleted uranium. The most recent one was completed in 2012, Orton said.
Prior to the adoption of the one metric ton limit, EnergySolutions accepted and still safely holds 49,000 tons of depleted uranium, according to Orton.
“The 10,000 tons would be less than 1 percent of our annual volume and much less than 1 percent of the total volume that we can receive,” Orton said. “Protection of human health and the environment remain intact with a small increase and it has already been considered by a performance assessment.”
Orton urged the board to “let science rule,” not politics or emotion.
There is a catch to depleted uranium, although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission classifies depleted uranium as Class A low-level radioactive waste, the lowest classification of radioactive waste: unlike other radioactive waste, depleted uranium retains its radioactivity for a long time and the decay products of uranium become more radioactive over time.
Nevertheless, EnergySolutions maintains that accepting this quantity of depleted uranium has already been analyzed and the Clive Facility, with its engineered disposal banks, can safely protect humans and the environment from harm.
Scott Williams, executive director of the Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah, and Jessica Reimer, policy associate with HEAL Utah, spoke against EnergySolutions’ request for an exemption.
EnergySolutions’ technical justifications for the exemptions are questionable and depleted uranium’s classification as Class A waste by the NRC is by default, according to Reimer.
“Whether or not depleted uranium is classified as Class A waste by the NRC is up for debate,” Reimer said.
A separate performance assessment modeling the disposal of 10,000 tons of depleted uranium over a time period of 10,000 years should be required just as the current rule requires, according to Reimer.
Williams said he believes depleted uranium should be treated more like spent nuclear fuel.
“It belongs in deep earth disposal,” he said. “To protect the public health of Utahns now and into the future, depleted uranium should be put in deep geologic repositories.”
Representatives of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club also spoke against the request.
“We strongly urge you to deny EnergySolutions request for an exemption,” said Ashley Soltysiak, chapter director. “We don’t believe there is adequate reason to grant this exemption from this law and that in doing so the board would place public health and environmental quality at risk.”
The Waste Management and Radiation Control Board’s meeting was not a public hearing. The exemption request was on the board’s agenda as an information item.
The WMRC board opened a public comment period on EnergySolutions’ request that started on Sept. 6 and runs through Oct. 9.
The comment period was advertised in the Transcript Bulletin and other media.
Public comment may be submitted to the DWMRC by email at email@example.com.
“Public comment for EnergySolutions exemption request for DU munitions” should be entered in the subject field. Any attachments should be sent as either text or pdf files.