MOAB — The radioactive tailings removal project, playing out near the banks of the Colorado River, reached another milestone this week with the announcement that 11 million tons of the material have safely been removed to a disposal site.
That leaves another 5 million tons to go from an area that spans 480 acres in southeastern Utah. The uranium mill tailings, known as the Pile, cover approximately 130 acres about 750 feet from the Colorado River.
"This is truly an exciting time," federal cleanup director Russell McCallister said. "As cleanup continues at this accelerated rate, we can see final closure on the horizon. As such, the U.S. Department of Energy is establishing a Closure Integrated Project Team focusing on what 'the end' looks like."
Mill tailings are a sand-like material that remain from processing uranium ore. These tailings, the last largest pile of radioactive tailings to be removed in the country, are left over from Moab's heyday as processing center for the Atomic Energy Commission, which bought the uranium concentrate until 1970 for making bombs.
In 2001, the U.S. Department of Energy took over the site and cleanup under the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project. Eight years later, federal authorities started removing tailings in an effort jump-started with an infusion of $104 million in stimulus money.
The tailings are transported by rail in locked steel containers and taken to Crescent Junction, about 30 miles north of the site. They then are placed in a disposal cell that is capped with a multilayered cover of native soils and rock.
In addition to the tailings removal, there is active remediation of the Moab site's groundwater. While not suitable for human consumption, it is an important part of the restoration efforts on the ground to remove the risk of contaminants.
Grand County has put together a "site futures" committee to look at what the area could host once removal is done — still not expected for several years to come.
As cleanup continues at this accelerated rate, we can see final closure on the horizon.
–Federal cleanup director Russell McCallister
A survey showed a variety of potential options for the area, including being host to a visitor center, the site of federal offices, public camping or a high-end recreational resort.
McAllister said there are a lot of choices to consider.
"Considering what opportunity the site's future could hold, our office is teaming with DOE's Office of Legacy Management and local and state stakeholders to help define what that looks like. We look forward to our partnership with the community in regards to closure of the site."
The project is also recognizing the workforce for another major achievement, exceeding more than 1,500 workdays without a lost-time injury or illness.
"Everyone is going home as they came to work, healthy," McCallister said. "That's no small feat, especially during the COVID pandemic."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated 6 million tons of radioactive tailings still need to be removed, when it should have read 5 million tons.