Radioactivity reclassification may bring more low-level waste to Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY — More of the radioactive waste stockpiled since the 1940s in three states could be headed to Utah's commercial disposal site in Tooele County under a new change in how the waste is classified.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced Thursday that it will no longer automatically classify waste based on how it was made, but rather on its radioactivity.

In particular, this decision revamps the decadeslong governmental practice of managing all "reprocessing waste streams" as high-level waste, regardless of radioactivity.

The agency said this "one size fits all approach" has led to decades of delay, costs running into the billions of dollars and idle waste "trapped" at DOE facilities in South Carolina, Washington and Idaho because of no permanent waste disposal solution.

Rusty Lundberg, deputy director of Utah's Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, said the government is essentially switching gears on how it looks at certain kinds of waste.

"Rather than going from a definition that absolutely says it is high-level radioactive waste, the government says we should look at its characteristics," Lundberg said.

The move brought swift condemnation from local advocacy organization HEAL Utah that is a watchdog group over radioactive waste storage and related issues impacting the environment.

"HEAL and Utahns don’t want to see more radioactive waste coming into Utah, especially this waste related to nuclear weapons given our state’s painful history of downwinders and weapons testing,” said Dr. Scott Williams, executive director of the Healthy Environmental Alliance.

“Luckily, the statewide ban on class B and C waste is still effectively in place and we will continue to make sure that the state’s radioactive waste disposal regulations and permitting process doesn’t put future generations of Utahns at risk.”

The federal government said the necessary change is the result of a 90-day scoping period that drew more than 5,500 comments.

The waste impacted by this new interpretation is from weapons development activities that happened at the Hanford Site in Washington and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It is also from reprocessing activities supporting nuclear research and development and naval propulsion programs that happened at the Idaho National Laboratory.

That waste, stockpiled for decades at these sites, was automatically classified as high-level radioactive waste and precluded from coming to Utah because of a 2005 ban passed by lawmakers that prohibits anything hotter than class A waste.

That ban remains on the books.

The revision in the federal law will look at the radioactivity of the waste and determine if its low level and therefore suitable for sites such as EnergySolutions' Clive facility in Tooele County or in Texas.

Those sites are not "deep geologic repositories" as required for high-level radioactive waste, and a site-specific analysis would be required before any waste would be shipped to those facilities.

The energy agency said the change will help in the nation's radioactive waste disposal problem.

"This administration is proposing a responsible, results-driven solution that will finally open potential avenues for the safe treatment and removal of the lower-level waste," Energy Undersecretary Paul Dabbar said. "This will accelerate cleanup and reduce risk."

The agency will maintain standards set by the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "with the goal of getting the lower-level waste out of these states without sacrificing public safety," Dabbar said.

Critics said it's a way for federal officials to walk away from their obligation to properly clean up a massive quantity of radioactive waste left from nuclear weapons production dating to World War II and the Cold War.

Contributing: Associated Press


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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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