We’re confident it’ll be an easy decision for Gov. Herbert to reject waste that grows increasingly hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, given all these uncertainties —Matt Pacenza, HEAL Utah
SALT LAKE CITY — A long-awaited safety evaluation on the proposed disposal of depleted uranium in Tooele County's western desert was released Monday, citing several areas of concern and detailing a list of conditions that must be met before any of the waste is received.
Ultimately, the report notes that none of the concerns in multiple areas — including the adequacy of the site's cover — cannot be resolved and that protection of the general public from radioactivity is sufficient.
But environmental groups say the report should send a clear signal to regulators and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert that the waste should be rejected outright, adding that its many concerns should doom EnergySolutions' plans.
"We’re confident it’ll be an easy decision for Gov. Herbert to reject waste that grows increasingly hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, given all these uncertainties," said Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah.
Depleted uranium is the byproduct of uranium that is enriched in the nuclear fuel process. Although it is classified as low-level radioactive waste — and thus able to be disposed at EnergySolutions' Clive site in Tooele County — it gets more radioactive with time, peaking at 2 million years.
That volatility of the waste led Utah regulators to require EnergySolutions to conduct a performance assessment of the disposal site, and Monday's report by the state's consultants is an evaluation of that assessment.
With the report's release, a public comment period begins Monday on the evaluation and continues through May 29. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency tasked with ultimately making the decision on depleted uranium disposal, scheduled two public hearings to solicit comments as well.
Those hearings are set for 6-8 p.m. May 6 at the Tooele County Courthouse, 47 S. Main, and 6-8 p.m. May 7 at the state agency's boardroom, 195 N. 1950 West.
The evaluation was performed on EnergySolutions' assessment that was initially submitted to the state in 2011 and revised for submission again in 2014. At the heart of both reports is the anticipated performance of the disposal cell over a 10,000-year period and how it might also react over "deep time," going forward hundreds of thousands of year into the future.
The state's safety evaluation, performed by independent contractor SC&A, examined several critical areas associated with EnergySolutions' plans to dispose of significant quantities of the radioactive material — the nation's stockpile is 700,000 metric tons — and indicated where concerns had been resolved, partially addressed, or where EnergySolutions had failed.
In particular, the analysis concluded that EnergySolutions failed to demonstrate the ability of its 5-foot cover system to withstand penetration by the root systems of native plants, some of which can reach a depth of 60 feet.
The inadequacy of the site's proposed cover raised concerns about frost damage and erosion. Additionally, the report noted that EnergySolutions greatly underestimated concentrations of radioactive material once another Lake Bonneville recedes from the area, pointing to concentrations that could be as much as 102 times larger than the company's estimates.
Aside from the unanswered questions, more than a half-dozen conditions for the acceptance of depleted uranium in Tooele County were detailed in the report, including the mandate that the material be buried below grade. The report, too, assumes that EnergySolutions will meet those concerns over the disposal cell's cover.
Beyond that, the state wants the U.S. Department of Energy to assume responsibility for the site upon closure; EnergySolutions has to guarantee that the type of waste described in the report is what will be buried there; and there is a prohibition on the acceptance of any recycled uranium.
Most notably, the state said if depleted uranium does not maintain its federal classification as the lowest level of radioactive waste, or class A, it cannot be accepted in Utah.
Pacenza said he believes those conditions will be impossible to meet.
“We’re not quite tossing our cowboy hats in the air yet,” he said. “But we’re pretty hopeful. And we’re gratified that Utah officials are showing such strong skepticism about the company’s absurdly narrow science.”
A decision is expected in June.
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