SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's top regulator over radioactive waste briefed the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday, urging that a proposed rule slated to be adopted in the coming year incorporate much of the groundwork already accomplished in the state.
"Our rules are similar in nature to what the NRC is proposing," Rusty Lundberg said after the hearing in Washington, D.C. "I think the hearing was quite successful."
Lundberg, who heads up the state's radiation control division, said he and an official from Texas — which is also contemplating the possible acceptance of large quantities of the radioactive material — urged that states be able to maintain their flexibility and regulatory purview that has already been carved out specifically for depleted uranium.
The NRC is proposing to adopt a rule that for the first time specifically addresses the disposal of the material, which is a waste stream generated from the enrichment process of uranium in the nuclear fuel cycle.
Depleted uranium poses unique disposal challenges because it does not hit its peak radioactivity until 2.1 million years, and actually grows more radioactive over time. In its disposal stage, however, depleted uranium contains radioactivity that falls under the lowest level classified by the federal government — that of class A — and is legally within limits on what can be buried in Utah at EnergySolutions' Clive facility.
Matt Pacenza, executive director of the radioactive waste watchdog organization called HEAL Utah, believes that the NRC is making a huge mistake by classifying depleted uranium as class A.
"Right now, a regulatory loophole could allow waste that does not reach a peak hazard for 2.1 million years to be treated just like waste which loses 90 percent of its hazard in less than 200," his presentation asserted.
Pacenza, who spoke at the briefing Thursday, said the safety of the public and the environment cannot be assured given the complex nature of depleted uranium and its long-lived radioactivity.
HEAL Utah has lobbied hard against any depleted uranium being disposed of at EnergySolutions' commercial facility in Tooele County ever since the Salt Lake-based company inked a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009 to begin accepting stockpiles of the waste — with the initial shipments reaching 10,500 tons.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert intervened, successfully getting some of those shipments turned around after he launched objections with the federal agency over the uncertainties associated with the material's disposal.
State regulators then convened multiple hearings and crafted their own rules governing the disposal of any significant amounts of depleted uranium, including the requirement that EnergySolutions develop a site-specific performance assessment designed to specifically contemplate depleted uranium's unique character.
While that assessment has been completed, an exhaustive back-and-forth between Utah regulators and EnergySolutions has been playing out over a safety evaluation of that assessment — and how that may ultimately affect Lundberg's decision on whether EnergySolutions can resume shipments. Although hearings were supposed to convene this spring, those were delayed to give the company more time to craft a response to state concerns.
The NRC's proposed rule on depleted uranium would affect commercial facilities in Utah and Texas, as well as Washington and South Carolina.
Mike Garner, executive director of the Northwest Interstate Compact — a regional alliance with oversight of low-level radioactive waste management — argued before the commission that the proposed rule should not be hoisted on states that aren't planning to take depleted uranium, a concern echoed by the Nuclear Energy Institute that argued the proposal would be unnecessarily costly and burdensome.
Pacenza, too, added that the proposal is undergoing significant modifications that show how much industry — particularly EnergySolutions — is influencing the potential regulation of depleted uranium.
EnergySolutions, for its part, argued before the commission that the rule was full of flaws.
Dan Shrum, senior vice president, made a presentation that stated the proposal is overly complicated and full of inconsistencies.
Comments on the rule can be submitted at www.regulations.gov
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