Ready or not, here it comes.
A shipment of uranium tailings from a former nuclear weapons processing site in Tonawanda, N.Y., is on its way to southeastern Utah. This despite repeated attempts by the state and Envirocare of Utah to be granted a hearing before it was shipped.Envirocare, which operates a low-level radioactive waste dump in Tooele County, is also bidding for the waste.
In June, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission amended a license for the White Mesa Mill, a uranium mill in Blanding owned by International Uranium Corp. The amendment would allow the mill to receive 25,000 cubic yards of uranium tailings from the Tonawanda plant.
Almost three weeks ago, the state and Envirocare requested a hearing with the NRC to protest the license amendment.
State officials and Envirocare argue the tailings, which White Mesa Mill plans to reprocess to extract trace quantities - 0.05 percent - of uranium, are low-level radioactive wastes that should be regulated under state laws that require siting, license, local, legislative and gubernatorial approvals.
The petition of the state to the NRC states the amendment "allows (White Mesa) to process and dispose of . . . materials that contain very little (uranium)," which would make the mill a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility.
"No public review or comment period was held regarding the decision to ship this waste material across the country to the White Mesa Uranium Mill," said Envirocare president Charles Judd in a letter to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "Full compliance with the (National Environmental Protection Act) would ensure that such a public review and comment period occurs."
But it appears that these initial appeals fell on deaf ears.
Bill Sinclair, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control, said that he received a press release last week from the state of New York notifying him the first shipment of tailings was on its way as of July 24.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is cleaning up the Tonawanda site, is planning to load nearly 40 containers of uranium tailings onto Union Pacific trains headed for White Mesa. Each container holds about 20 tons of the radioactive waste.
"I was surprised by the news," Sinclair said. "I knew IUC had their contract in place to have the tailings shipped to White Mesa, but I just wished we had a chance to voice our concerns."
But Sinclair isn't giving up hope.
He said the state is planning on filing another petition with the NRC to stop remaining shipments to the mill. Those shipments that have already been sent will arrive at White Mesa, Sinclair said, even if the petition is granted.
Earl Hoellen, president of IUC, said he is not exactly sure where the shipments are.
"We were planning on getting the shipments earlier in the week, but it was rerouted along the way somewhere," Hoellen said.
The best estimation Hoellen could give as to the whereabouts of the shipment is somewhere in the Midwest, or possibly in the state by now.
Once the train load of tailings arrives at a railroad yard in Carbon County, Hoellen said the containers will be transported by tractor-trailer trucks to the White Mesa Mill site about 200 miles away.
Some state officials believe IUC has other purposes for the tailings besides recycling uranium de-pos-its.
Lane Beattie, president of the Utah State Senate, referred to IUC's intentions as "sham recycling," saying IUC is using a "back door approach" in trying to dispose of the tailings instead of reprocessing the uranium.
Hoellen said IUC officials are not trying to go behind anyone's back, because it has always been licensed as both a processing and disposal facility.