CLIVE, Tooele County — In this barren, wind-swept landscape where saltbush, spiny snakeweed and black sagebrush thrive, where the nearest community is 40 miles and two mountain ranges away, controversy lives among the solitude.
It is here where a good chunk of the nation's stockpile of radioactive depleted uranium could be buried, sequestered in thousands upon thousands of steel drums covered by liners and soil at EnergySolutions' Clive facility in Tooele County.
The U.S Department of Energy has 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium stored in Ohio and Kentucky, a disposal job the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates will cost around $428 million.
Depleted uranium is the byproduct of the uranium enrichment process that takes place in the manufacture of nuclear weapons and in the production of fuel for nuclear power plants. Though it is less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium — 60 percent — its radioactivity increases over time as it decays, with its so-called "daughter products" not reaching their peak until 2.1 million years.
It is this steadily increasing radioactivity that alarms critics of the proposal and has the state engaged in a lengthy, complex analysis probing the suitability of Clive as a disposal site, and what type of exposure risks may arise.
"Nuclear waste that grows increasingly hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years shouldn’t be heaped in a pile just below ground in our west desert," said Christopher Thomas, executive director of the grass-roots, anti-nuclear group HEAL Utah. "It should be buried deeply, locked safely away from future civilizations."
In its current state, depleted uranium meets the radioactive threshold imposed by Utah lawmakers in 2005, via a ban that prohibits the importation and disposal of radioactive waste any "hotter" than Class A, the lowest level of radioactivity.
But Thomas said it makes little sense for the state to give a nod to depleted uranium because it is such a long-range threat that flies in the face of that ban.
"In 2005, the Utah Legislature voted overwhelmingly to ban waste that would have posed a danger for (300) to 500 years. It's unfathomable that we would now be on the verge of accepting waste that is a threat for 2 million."
EnergySolutions officials believe the site can safely handle the material and have stressed that depleted uranium is far less radioactive than what is found in the ground with natural uranium. In fact, the company argues, it takes 51,400 years before depleted uranium even gets as radioactive as uranium.
"Science should be the determining factor as to whether or not any waste stream can be disposed at Clive," EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said. "We believe that the performance assessment will demonstrate that Clive is suitable for the long-term disposal of depleted uranium."
The complex problems posed by depleted uranium's storage has challenged both federal and state regulators in Utah.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to issue a rule governing its safe disposal, and in the absence of such regulation, states are free to craft their own contingency plans.
Just this week in Texas, a three-member state regulatory commission voted unanimously without comment and without public input to allow a west Texas nuclear waste dump site to take depleted uranium.
In Utah, the very public issue of depleted uranium has dogged regulators since 2009, when 10,500 tons of the material was shipped to Clive in a contractual arrangement between the U.S. Department of Energy and EnergySolutions.
The deal incensed Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who ultimately negotiated a delay in any more shipments until state regulations are in place and the site is sufficiently evaluated.
That yearslong process of analysis is finally starting to wind down. In a couple of weeks, the Utah Division of Radiation Control is slated to release an evaluation of EnergySolutions' assessment of its Clive facility for the storage of the Cold War-era material.
Utah regulators required the company to go through the extensive process of analyzing all the "what-ifs" associated with the storage, modeling scenarios out to 10,000 years, and also looking at how the site in Tooele County's western desert might react to any manner of circumstances that could arise in "deep" geologic time.
Such threats to the site 65 miles west of Salt Lake City are varied: meteor strikes, volcanic activity, the return of large lakes like Lake Bonneville, or even breaches caused by burrowing ants or rodents.
Such long-range modeling and predictions and a subsequent 90-page analysis are often the stuff that forms disagreements, and this process has been no different.
"There are areas of interest and concern," said Rusty Lundberg, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control, declining to get into specifics of where the documents may have areas of disagreement.
In tandem with the release of the division's evaluation, the division will begin a public comment period Sept. 8 and has scheduled two public hearings: Sept. 23 in Tooele County and Sept. 24 in Salt Lake City at the state environmental offices.
Lundberg said the public will have an opportunity to review the evaluation and offer comment that may ultimately factor into his decision on the storage of depleted uranium in Utah.
Last fall, when the division hosted an open house at the start of the review process, several topics of concern were raised by the public, which Lundberg said have subsequently been addressed in a revised performance assessment submitted to the division just last month.
"I feel very confident about the process. The confidence we have in the expertise of our consultants is very high," he said.
Thomas said he does not believe the consultants hired by EnergySolutions accurately captured the potential risks to the so-called "inadvertent intruder" — people who unwittingly come in contact with depleted uranium thousands of years from now.
"Our fundamental problem with the analysis and modeling done by (the consultants) is not so much what they did do — but what they chose not to do," Thomas wrote in a memo to the radiation division in January.
"In projecting out hundreds of thousands of years, forecasters must assume that modern civilization has broken down or transformed, that record-keeping, signage and historical knowledge has been disrupted," he said.
Instead, Thomas said the analysis done for EnergySolutions only contemplates two accidental encounter scenarios: ranchers and recreationists.
"The review commissioned by EnergySolutions is fatally flawed because it ignored 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 for Utahns for hundreds of generations to come."
It is a decision that Lundberg will make in early December that is being awaited from a variety of corners.
The governor, who ordered independent sampling of the first shipment of depleted uranium to arrive in Utah, said the determination ultimately has important policy implications for the state.
"The safety and long-term impacts of disposal of large quantities of depleted uranium are of great concern to me and the people of Utah," Herbert said in a statement.
"The Department of Environmental Quality and the Division of Radiation Control are engaged in a thorough analysis of the science and modeling of these impacts. This analysis has been transparent to public interests and engaged stakeholders throughout the process. I have every confidence this process — based on the best science — will result in the best decision for Utah."
For Tooele County, the arrival of depleted uranium for storage at Clive means the arrival of revenue — an important consideration for a government entity that has struggled the past few years with multimillion dollar budget shortfalls and layoffs.
Bruce Clegg, Tooele County Commission chairman, said storage of the material could add $1 million to county coffers, a number that is tough to ignore.
The shipments of depleted uranium would also help what Clegg describes as a "good, clean business neighbor that has helped the community."
EnergySolutions laid off 60 of its employees at Clive in 2012 in a massive corporate restructuring and was sold to a private equity firm in 2013.
Walker conceded at one point that since 2006, shipments to Clive have declined due to a number of factors, including increased competition and the slowdown in the economy and government contracts.
Clegg said the county believes the Clive facility is a safe spot for the material, and the science behind the analysis will show that.
"We feel comfortable with the science," he said. "They have had to jump through these extra hoops, when in reality we felt it was already an acceptable site. We feel the science will bear that it is safe to store out there, and we are in favor of that."6 comments on this story
But Thomas said the storage of depleted uranium in Utah is a disaster waiting to happen and the short-term gains are not worth the long-term risks.
"For EnergySolutions, depleted uranium represents a short-term windfall," he said. "But for the people of Utah, depleted uranium represents an eternal threat — an environmental catastrophe just waiting to happen."