Utah will soon face a huge decision — whether or not to allow the disposal of depleted uranium (DU), an extremely long-lived nuclear waste, at EnergySolutions’ facility in our West Desert. But here’s the question that state officials and all Utahns should be asking first: Why are the feds so eager to offload their 700,000-ton problem on our state?
This disposal problem originated decades ago. In 1982, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published rules governing nuclear waste disposal. Back then, the NRC didn’t anticipate the massive volumes of DU that another federal agency, the Department of Energy, would eventually need a place to stash.
When the NRC made its rules, it created three distinctive waste classes. Class A waste, the least hazardous waste class, is the only kind accepted in Utah.
However, a few types of waste were left out because some of their properties — like increasing in radioactivity or being extremely long lived — complicated their classification. These uncategorized “unique waste streams” are legally considered Class A by a regulatory loophole. But their properties are very different than their Class A cohorts’.
DU is the best known of these “unique waste” streams. It is radically different from other Class A waste. Instead of gradually degrading and becoming much less dangerous within a few hundred years, DU actually increases in hazard for 2.1 million years. It will eventually exceed Class A hazard levels — which unequivocally violates our ban.
That’s why the NRC, in a recent hearing in Salt Lake City, has stated that properly classifying this waste is a priority, although not at the top of its to-do list.
This federal bureaucratic delay provides a small window of opportunity for EnergySolutions to capitalize and push Utah to accept DU — before it becomes officially classified out of their reach. They’ve got big-time motivation. According to a company spokesman, they are estimated to earn $15 to $20 million annually if awarded the federal contract.
The irony here is that a viable federal disposal site already exists. The Nevada test site has taken small quantities of DU in the past and is federally owned and operated. That begs the question: Why don’t the feds manage their own problem? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to internalize those disposal costs?
Another big policy question: If a state like Utah is forced to take DU, which is vastly different than the short-lived waste we typically accept, what implications will this have nationally?
The nation’s current disposal facilities — in Utah, Washington, Texas and South Carolina — exist to safely get rid of low-level radioactive materials, like medical waste or lightly contaminated materials from the nuclear power industry. But when commercial sites, like EnergySolutions, are granted permission to take an extremely long-lived and radioactive substance like DU, it will make it much harder to place facilities like these anywhere else.
When the current sites close in the decades to come, and a new community is asked to take on waste like this, will they want to sign a 2.1 million year contact with a company that might be there to monitor it for a century or two — at best? Probably not. This will potentially leave the industry, states and communities holding a very radioactive bag.
Hopefully Gov. Gary Herbert and his environmental officials won’t let Utah be a dumping ground for the federal government’s DU problem. They showed healthy skepticism in their evaluation of EnergySolutions’ initial safety study. But the ultimate “yes” or “no” decision is coming, as early as this fall. Depleted uranium isn’t Utah’s problem to solve. Let’s keep it that way.
Ashley Soltysiak is HEAL Utah’s policy associate.