SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Department of Energy said Thursday it won't halt the shipment of nearly 15,000 drums of low-level radioactive waste from South Carolina for disposal in Utah.
DOE spokeswoman Lauren Milone issued a statement saying that the DOE is prepared to begin the first of three planned shipments of depleted Uranium by rail from the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.
Ultimately, about 10,000 metric tons of depleted uranium will make its way to Utah.
U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, had asked the DOE to suspend the shipments until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finalizes rules for how the material should be disposed.
Depleted uranium is different from other waste disposed at EnergySolutions Inc.'s facility 70 miles west of Salt Lake City because it becomes more radioactive over time, for up to 1 million years. The material is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process used to make nuclear weapons during the Cold War era.
"I am very disappointed that this material is headed to Utah, despite my concerns. I will continue to press the NRC for an appropriate review of necessary safety standards for this waste, which essentially remains hazardous forever," Matheson said in a statement.
The NRC isn't expected to finalize its rules until 2012 at the earliest. Meanwhile, Utah regulators are also developing their own rules to ensure the disposal site can safely handle depleted uranium in the future before any more of it is allowed into the state. Those rules aren't expected to be completed for several months.
The DOE has said it plans to complete the shipments by this spring -- possibly before Utah regulators could implement new rules to keep any of the waste out.
"Once again the federal government has deemed the health and safety of Utahns less valuable than the rest of the country," said Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the nuclear waste watchdog group Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.
In a Nov. 17 presentation to the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board, the DOE said if shipments to Utah were interrupted because of local opposition then the depleted uranium would be diverted to the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles north of Las Vegas.
The DOE said Wednesday that Nevada had been ruled out as a possibility because it would have to conduct a statewide environmental assessment before disposing any new waste there. That would likely take at least a year -- too long in DOE's eyes.
Funding for the Savannah River Site cleanup comes from federal stimulus money.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)