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Depleted uranium: A desert at risk?

Published: Friday, Aug. 22 2014 6:11 p.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 22 2014 6:11 p.m. MDT

EnergySolutions crews work at the facility in Clive, Tooele County, Aug. 19, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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.

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