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Does trainload of radioactive waste have legal right to be in Utah?

By John Hollenhorst | Posted - Feb. 23, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.


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TOOELE COUNTY -- State experts began sampling a trainload of radioactive waste Tuesday to make sure EnergySolutions had a legal right to accept it at the company's landfill in Tooele County.

Monday, Gov. Gary Herbert persuaded federal officials to send two similar trainloads of waste somewhere else.

Now the question is, does the first trainload delivered in December have a legal right to be here?

From Chopper 5, it's an amazing site: more than 5,000 barrels of radioactive waste waiting to be buried.

But not yet. Not until state experts in protective gear finish taking random samples from 171 of the barrels, and not until lab work is completed.

Dane Finerfrock, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control, said, "Governor Herbert asked that we do some sampling for ourselves. That we don't routinely do."

The depleted uranium on the train came from a federal cleanup project in South Carolina. The sampling is to determine if the radioactive powder inside the barrels is contaminated with unacceptably high concentrations of an isotope called Technetium-99. If so, it would not meet legal requirements for the least dangerous category, Class A radioactive waste.

"EnergySolutions is restricted to taking Class A low-level waste," Finerfrock said.

What is... Technetium-99?
Technetium-99 is a silver-gray, radioactive metal. It occurs naturally in minute amounts in the earth's crust, but is primarily man-made and is mainly a byproduct from the operation of nuclear reactors, but is also found in the radioactive wastes from defense-related government facilities, fuel cycle facilities, academic institutions, hospitals, and research establishments. It is also produced in the detonation of nuclear weapons. -EPA

Under the deal worked out with Herbert, the U.S. Department of Energy has agreed to remove this first trainload if a couple of conditions are not met.

First, the EnergySolutions landfill has to meet new requirements for safe disposal of depleted uranium. Those new rules are currently being finalized by state regulators.

Second, the depleted uranium shipped by federal officials has to meet Class A requirements, meaning not too much Technetium-99.

"They knew there were other radioactive materials in the material other than depleted uranium," Finerfrock said. "They did what they could to extract all of the other contaminants, but there's still some trace amounts in the depleted uranium."

Environmental critics say an expert they hired made calculations from data in the shipping manifest. He concluded there's a high probability some of the barrels do exceed legal limits.

They plan to release that study at a news conference next week.

E-mail: hollenhorst@ksl.com

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