The Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to be held accountable for its questionable actions.
A Utah official, Bill Sinclair, director of the Division of Radiation Control, believes the NRC is fiddling with its own guidelines in approving 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.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" uranium tailings left over from the 1940s Manhattan Project in Tonawanda, N.Y.
Without the change, the mill is licensed only to process uranium ore and "unconventional ores," interpreted to include tailings in limited cases.
This game of licensing semantics is designed, Sinclair believes, to allow waste disposal. "White Mesa was built for processing uranium, not as a waste-disposal facility," he 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."
White Mesa Mill has received modifications to its license in the past to accept small amounts of uranium mill tailings for reprocessing. But the Tonawanda shipments are massively larger than anything ever considered at White Mesa.
And that's the issue - the significant departure from what it's done in the past. Is the NRC in a sense calling a Virginia creeper a rose to circumvent the system? If the federal government is changing the rules by reclassifying the radioactive wastes as materials for reprocessing, then by approving the petition to allow White Mesa Mill to reprocess those materials, the feds can then circumvent state environmental laws and approval processes.
That could result in the material being shipped from New York by rail to Grand Junction, Colo., or one of two different rail heads in Grand County. From there it would be trucked 100 miles south to Blanding.
Utah environmental regulators are right to challenge the NRC's action and to consider legal remedies to block the shipments. If the NRC has not followed its own guidelines, it should be called on the carpet for changing the rules in the middle of the game.