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Ryan Johnson, Utah Division of Radiation Control

Utah review of radioactive waste plan to rev up in 2017

By Michelle L. Price, Associated Press  |  Posted Dec 14th, 2016 @ 6:21pm


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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — State regulators next month will rev up a stagnant review of a Utah company's push to bury in the state's west desert a type of radioactive waste that becomes more radioactive for 2 million years.

The seven-year effort from Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions has been stalled amid environmental reviews and questions about whether the waste, known as depleted uranium, belongs in Utah.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has been reviewing EnergySolutions' plan and whether the agency will allow it to move forward, but that effort went into hibernation for much of 2016, soon after the company announced it was buying a Texas firm that's already allowed to bury the waste in that state.

Helge Gabert, a project manager with the Department of Environmental Quality, said the review was put on a backburner this year as the agency focused its limited staff on other projects, but they're planning to make it a higher priority starting Jan. 1.

Gabert said the change is based on the agency's workload, and they hope to make enough progress in 2017 to allow public comment in late summer.

Depleted uranium, left over from the enrichment process used to make nuclear weapons and generate nuclear energy, grows hotter over a long period because other toxic materials it produces when it decays also emit radiation. Eventually, after billions of years, the decay process ends and what's left is a stable form of lead.

It's currently classified as low-level radioactive waste. Waste with higher levels of radioactivity is illegal in Utah.

Environmental groups argue depleted uranium should not be treated as low-level waste but instead reclassified as a hotter type of hazardous material.

Critics of the plan to bury depleted uranium in Utah had hoped that if EnergySolutions was able to buy the Texas facility, it would send depleted uranium to that state instead. Texas regulators have already given permission for depleted uranium to be buried there.

But that deal hit a snag after the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the deal in mid-November. The government argued in a lawsuit that Texas-based Waste Control Specialists is EnergySolutions' only competition when it comes to handling and storing the nation's low-level radioactive waste.

EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said the company is still seeking approval in Utah. He deferred questions about the antitrust lawsuit to a previous statement where the company vowed to fight the challenge. EnergySolutions argued that there are other competitors in their industry and that the merger would cut costs, allowing savings to be passed on to utilities and consumers of nuclear energy.

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