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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- About 3,500 tons of waste from a former nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina awaiting disposal near Salt Lake City meets Utah's health and safety standards, state regulators said Monday.
Utah's Department of Environmental Quality said test results from a Tennessee lab confirmed that the Savannah River Site's depleted uranium radiation levels don't exceed state standards, so the waste won't have to be shipped elsewhere.
EnergySolutions Inc. is only licensed to accept the lowest classification of low-level radioactive waste at its facility in the desert about 70 miles west of Salt Lake City.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert ordered testing of the depleted uranium from the Savannah River Site in January after an environmental group said it reviewed shipping manifests for some of the waste and found some barrels likely contained waste that's too hot to be disposed of in the state.
That's because the material includes radionuclide technetium-99, a man-made product that results from the fissioning of nuclear fuel in a reactor to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. State law only allows for certain levels of the material to be disposed of in Utah.
EnergySolutions said the laboratory testing validated its long-held position that the waste can safely be disposed in Utah.
"We welcomed the governor's request for additional sampling and tests of the contents of the depleted uranium containers because we were confident that the independent laboratory findings would validate our original testing and documentation," EnergySolutions President Val Christensen said in a statement.
Depleted uranium has come under an unusual amount of scrutiny here because unlike other low-level radioactive waste, it becomes more radioactive over time. State and federal officials are working on new rules to determine how it should be buried in the long term.
Ordinarily, the state doesn't test low-level radioactive waste disposed in the state to ensure compliance.
"We believe that given questions raised about the nature of this waste, the state should do its due diligence and perform additional tests," Amanda Smith, executive director of DEQ, said in a statement.
Eberline Services Inc. of Oak Ridge, Tenn., analyzed 171 samples randomly collected from the 5,400 drums already on site in Utah.
Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the nuclear waste watchdog group Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said it's not surprising that the sampling didn't turn up concentrations of waste that are too hot for Utah.
"Our statistical analysis that we had commissioned showed somewhere between 600 and 4,000 barrels of the original 33,000 total barrels would contain some amount of contaminants (exceeding state limits)," she said. "If you're looking for 600 containers out of 33,000, that's a bit like look for a needle in a haystack."
The U.S. Department of Energy has been disposing of depleted uranium from the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., since 2003. More than 10,000 drums of depleted uranium from the South Carolina facility have already been disposed of in Utah, according to the DOE, although that waste was not sampled.
It also has disposed of some material at the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles north of Las Vegas.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)