SALT LAKE CITY — State regulators opted Thursday to open a 30-day comment period on a proposal by EnergySolutions to store a significant amount of solid depleted uranium from the cores of military grade weapons at its facility in Tooele County.
Activists say the exemption to Utah law EnergySolutions seeks is yet another attempt by the company to circumvent the regulatory process.
“This is the third time in a year that EnergySolutions has asked for an exemption from the laws which regulate their operations and that were put in place to safeguard public health and safety,” HEAL Utah’s Executive Director Dr. Scott Williams said.
“If this exemption is granted, it will establish a dangerous precedent that skirting the law is business as usual for EnergySolutions.”
But EnergySolutions, in its letter to the Utah’s Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control Board, said the solid metal depleted uranium penetrators in the military munitions are far less hazardous to depleted uranium oxides — which are what the Utah Department of Environmental Quality has been considering for disposal at Clive, Tooele County, for seven years in a performance assessment underway.
"Depleted uranium metal does not generate dust and emits radon gas at rates significantly lower than depleted uranium oxide. Therefore, the risk to human health and the environment is much less for depleted uranium metal than for depleted uranium oxide," wrote Tim Orton, an environmental engineer with EnergySolutions.
"Due to these differences, depleted uranium metal need not be managed under the same restrictions as depleted uranium oxide."
Scott Anderson, division director, says the current law on the books requires a performance assessment if a metric ton or more of enriched uranium components are proposed for disposal in Utah.
The U.S. Army issued a request for proposals to dispose of about 6,000 tons of the solid depleted uranium cores over a multiple year period. The munitions are in storage at Tooele County and in Crane, Indiana.
The military is likely on a quick turnaround with its bid process, so the emergency board action Thursday was a formality to kickstart the public review, Anderson added.
"This raises legal and technical issues that we are just beginning to look into," he said. "There is a lot of homework left to do on this."
Anderson's division is in the midst of a multiyear effort crafting a performance assessment for the proposed storage of depleted uranium oxide at Clive.
Depleted uranium, which is the byproduct of the uranium enrichment process, is a controversial waste stream because it gets hotter over time.
The division has been modeling what would happen to depleted uranium at the Clive facility over "deep" time, or 10,000 years.
Anderson said the separate process of review will not likely produce a draft assessment well into next year.
One question yet to be answered with this latest proposal is if solid depleted uranium from 30 mm munitions has the same radioactive properties as the depleted uranium powder.
"Our sense is depleted uranium is depleted uranium regardless if it is powder or solid," Anderson said. "That is the homework we need to do."
The 30-day comment period will begin Sept. 6. Another board meeting on the issue is set for Sept. 13.