Source: The Salt Lake Tribune | Brian Maffly | April 12, 2015
EnergySolutions’ Clive disposal site is being prepped to accept depleted uranium, a low-level radioactive waste that harbors a bigger threat as time goes on.
The barrels look harmless enough. Tucked away in a sterile metal shed in the middle of Utah’s West Desert, the 55-gallon plastic drums show no hint of what lies beneath the metal lids — radioactive waste that will only get hotter over time.
EnergySolutions executives hope the 5,400 containers eventually will become a waste stream that could sustain the company for years — approximately 250,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in all.
The waste-management company has prepared a burial ground for the stuff — a vast pit, 10 feet deep, where tens of thousands of the drums would be lined up and covered in concrete, clay and rocks.
Forever. Or at least as far into the future as humans can plan. Now, state hazardous-waste managers have to sign off on the idea.
EnergySolutions’ proposal to allow the U.S. Department of Energy to send up to half its depleted uranium to a Tooele County landfill 80 miles west of Salt Lake City is nearing final approval.
On Monday, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will release an evaluation of the company’s ability to keep the uranium safe. At the same time, DEQ wants to hear Utahns’ thoughts about the plan. Public hearings are scheduled in early May.
For decades, stockpiles of the waste — just one legacy of the nation’s nuclear bomb-making binge — have defied permanent disposal because of concerns about long-term risks. When you’re projecting thousands of years of radioactivity, no one is 100 percent sure what that means for Earth’s inhabitants.
“It’s a sticky, complicated issue. There is a lot of fear surrounding it,” said DEQ Executive Director Amanda Smith during a recent visit with The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board.
But EnergySolutions Marketing Vice President Mark Walker says the company simply is fixing a problem all Americans helped create.
“As a country, we generated this,” Walker said. “We all benefited from nuclear science, whether it’s through medical research or cancer treatments, energy [or defense].
“The nuclear bomb was developed to protect our country,” he added. “To responsibly manage it limits the risk for everybody.”
Whether the company’s plan is responsible is a point of debate.
Depleted uranium, or DU, is considered a low-level hazard today, but it becomes progressively more radioactive over thousands of years, posing an environmental hazard deep into the future, long after the civilization that produced the waste disappears.
Right now, the waste — 750,000 metric tons — is being stored at three U.S. Department of Energy sites, in South Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio.