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Public comment delayed on plan to bury depleted uranium

Public comment delayed on plan to bury depleted uranium

(Geoff Liesik/KSL-TV/File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A recent decision by the state's environmental monitoring agency is drawing sharp criticism.

This week, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality announced that it would delay formal public comment and allow waste management firm EnergySolutions additional time to address important components not addressed or resolved in its draft Safety Evaluation Report to store low-level radioactive waste at its Clive facility in Tooele County.

That pronouncement prompted fierce disapproval from environmental activists as well as Utah’s top political figure.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he worries the depleted uranium might be more radioactive than the law allows and shouldn't be stored in the state.

Depleted uranium is classified as class A low-level waste by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, the department noted that depleted uranium is a product of the uranium enrichment process that is initially less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium, but “becomes significantly more radioactive over time, posing challenges for safe and effective long-term disposal.”

Herbert said those concerns warrant the utmost consideration in making a final judgment.


"It's not a matter of, 'Can we do it?' The questions is, 'Should we do it and is it permitted under the law,'" the governor said during his monthly KUED news conference. He noted that a review by the regulatory commission to determine the radioactive potency of the proposed waste should happen before storage should be allowed in the state.

"Frankly, if it's hotter than class A waste, we don't want to have it. If it's class A waste that fits under the parameters of the NRC, then that's something else,” Herbert said. “(EnergySolutions) may have the right to permit it. But I want that reviewed because I have a hunch that it's hotter than class A waste."

Until the review is completed, Herbert said he is "not comfortable having depleted uranium stored out at Clive."

Currently, the company's license allows for the storage of large quantities of depleted uranium. But critics argue that storing such sizeable amounts of radioactive waste could pose a serious environmental hazard for centuries.

Environmental advocacy group HEAL Utah expressed frustration Thursday that EnergySolutions had been granted yet more time to make their case that dangerous depleted uranium can be safely stored in the west desert.

“The company had ample opportunity since early in 2014 to respond to inquiries from Utah officials — but chose not to — and many of the important issues surrounding the Herbert administration's huge decision on depleted uranium (are) simply unresolveable,” said HEAL Utah Executive Director Matt Pacenza. "Giving EnergySolutions more time won't offer Utahns any more solace that nuclear waste that presents a potent threat for millions of years can be stored safely in a mound in the desert."

They can take all the time they want to put lipstick on this particular radioactive pig. But Utahns aren't dumb. We know depleted uranium doesn't belong here.

–Matt Pacenza, HEAL Utah Executive

He said that regardless of how many more months the company takes to make its case, there is no way it will ever be able to show that it is safe to store nuclear waste that increases in hazard for 2 million years just below ground.

"They can take all the time they want to put lipstick on this particular radioactive pig," said Pacenza. "But Utahns aren't dumb. We know depleted uranium doesn't belong here."

He said whether it is this summer or fall or next year, his organization is confident Herbert and state policymakers will ultimately make the right decision and protect Utahns “for untold generations to come."

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality said in a prepared statement that it is imperative that the formal administrative public comment process be as meaningful as possible. The period will be re-opened when the information necessary to fully analyze potential environmental and health impacts has been submitted by EnergySolutions.

“DEQ encourages the public to become informed about the issue and participate in the informal information process as well as the administrative comment period,” the statement added.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

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