SALT LAKE CITY — A bill critics say would upend a 14-year-old ban on so-called "hotter" radioactive waste disposal in Utah and give wide policy discretion to a single government employee received House approval Tuesday with a 51-20 vote.
The Radioactive Waste Amendments, HB220, by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, would codify waste classification at the time of disposal, not how it may change over time.
That key change is critical in EnergySolutions' bid to bury the nation's stockpile of 750,000 tons of depleted uranium — the byproduct of the uranium enrichment process — which meets low-level radioactive waste classifications now but in about 38,000 years jumps to the more radioactive class B waste.
Utah banned the importation of class B and class C wastes in 2005.
Depleted uranium is a unique waste stream that has proven problematic to characterize by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state regulators.
It is 40 percent as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium and is incredibly dense, leading to its use by the military to coat tanks and ammunition and in medical applications to shield medical workers taking X-rays. The "leftover" depleted uranium from the enrichment process sits in Kentucky and Ohio awaiting storage.
Utah is in the midst of a technical review process to determine if EnergySolutions meets site-specific disposal requirements for acceptance of the waste in Clive, Tooele County. The analysis projects how the disposal site would hold up under deep geologic time.
The bill would not remove the requirement of that state analysis prior to the acceptance of any depleted uranium for disposal at Clive.
EnergySolutions' officials briefed members of the GOP caucus before debate Tuesday afternoon.
Albrecht, whose father, uncle and older brothers mined uranium in Utah in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War, said depleted uranium is the byproduct of an industry that helped the United States win World War II, employed thousands in the state and continues to provide good jobs in Tooele County.
"Like it or not, it is a critical part of enjoying the freedoms all Utahns enjoy," he said. "Once the useful life of the material is over, it needs to be disposed of."
His Democratic colleagues panned the idea of loosening any of the radioactive waste disposal restrictions in Utah and creating any to path to hastening the disposal of depleted uranium in the state.
"What we could be leaving for many generations off into the future could be very, very dangerous," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers would be wise to keep in mind that Clive would be destined to be the "permanent" repository for the radioactive material, not temporary.
"We are talking a million years," he said. "This is well past lifetimes we can imagine."
The measure also made some lawmakers like Arent uncomfortable with vesting so much discretionary authority with the director of the Utah Division of Solid Waste and Radiation Control.13 comments on this story
But Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said the regulatory review process is based on rigorous scientific analysis and nothing in the bill precludes Utah lawmakers from revisiting the issue.
"At any time we can shut anything down that that facility is doing, let alone this. We should act like a Legislature and move the policy forward."
The measure now moves to the Senate, where critics hope they can kill the bill.
Mark Walker, spokesman for EnergySolutions, said the company is grateful lawmakers acted to "clarify" an important policy question.
Contributing: Katie McKellar