With a wink and a nod, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved a license modification request that could result in 25,000 tons of radioactive waste being moved from New York to a uranium mill in southeastern Utah.
And Utah environmental regulators - who complain the plan is nothing more than "waste disposal in disguise" - are now looking at legal remedies to possibly block the shipments."No decisions have been made, but we are leaning toward pushing the NRC on this one," said Bill Sinclair, director of the state Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste.
International Uranium Corp., which owns the White Mesa Mill just south of Blanding, had petitioned the NRC for a change in its operating license that would allow it to "reprocess" the uranium mill tailings left over from the famous 1940s Manhattan Project in Tonawanda, N.Y.
Prior to the change, the company was licensed only to process uranium ore and "unconventional ores," which have been interpreted to include tailings in limited cases. But the company argued it could reprocess the New York mill tailings, which it estimated contain .05 percent of uranium and other radioactive materials.
Sinclair believes International Uranium's plan is waste disposal. "White Mesa was built for processing uranium, not as a waste disposal facility," Sinclair told the Deseret News. "If they want to move into the realm of waste disposal, then they have to adhere to more rigorous standards than they do currently."
While legal action is definitely an option, Sinclair noted that the NRC's licensing process does not allow for state participation or approval. The state has 30 days to petition the NRC for legal standing on the matter before it will be allowed any opportunity to challenge the license change.
However, the formal notice from the NRC to the state has no date, and Sinclair isn't certain when the countdown started.
The state's opposition is based on the premise the NRC did not follow its own agency guidelines in granting the license change to International Uranium.
NRC official policy on reprocessing is three-pronged: 1) It requires any material being processed to be "ore-like" so that it can be processed through the mill without new facilities or restructuring; 2) it states there must be enough uranium in the material to make it economically viable; and 3) it must not contain any hazardous wastes.
"In my review of the latest proposal, it appears the NRC has strayed away from that criteria," Sinclair said, adding it appears to him the NRC is buckling to pressure from the National Mining Association to change its rules regarding reprocessing of mill tailings.
There is nothing in the NRC's technical evaluation report that indicates the project would comply with the first two criteria, but the report emphasizes there are no hazardous wastes involved.
The change in the license opens the door for International Uranium to bid on the contract for the Tonawanda materials. But it is clear from the NRC's official decision they are looking seriously at shipping the materials to the mill near Blanding.
The NRC document indicates the materials, which were disposed of along two tributaries of the Niagra River in upstate New York, would be loaded into large rail containers and shipped west to Grand Junction, Colo., or one of two different rail heads in Grand County.
It would then be hauled by truck to Blanding about 100 miles south. The NRC estimated about 60 trucks a week would be needed to haul the radioactive materials from the rail head to the mill.
The Tonawanda site is one of about 26 sites around the nation that are targeted for cleanup of radioactive wastes left over from uranium processing for various military projects. Those administering the cleanup program have wanted to foster competitive bids for the cleanups.
Envirocare of Utah is the only commercial company licensed to accept low-level radioactive wastes.
By changing the rules, in effect reclassifying the radioactive waste as materials for reprocessing, the federal government can then circumvent state environmental laws and approval processes.
"The state is very concerned about the precedence it sets," Sinclair said.