Interim storage of DU waste in Utah remains to raise questions

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

While the debate on what to do with Savannah River Site’s depleted uranium (DU) waste lingers on, the US Energy Department’s Inspector General calls a plan to store two trainloads of this DU waste in Texas unnecessary and wasting taxpayers' money.

The radioactive material, left over from decades of nuclear weapons production and contaminated with reactor originated radionuclides, was stored in 15,600 drums and intended for disposal at EnergySolutions Inc.’s facility in Clive, 70 miles (110 km) west of Salt Lake City, Utah. This is a facility for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste or Class A waste. Though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently decided against reclassifying DU as hotter than Class A waste, after the arrival of the first shipment of 5,408 drums from Savannah River Site (SRS) in December, Utah's governor protested further shipments. The Department of Energy (DOE) then idled two trainloads that remain at the nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina.

It wasn't immediately clear if the radioactive waste would remain in South Carolina or be disposed of elsewhere. In a November presentation given to the SRS Citizens Advisory Board, the DOE said if shipments to Utah were interrupted, the waste would be diverted to the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles north of Las Vegas. The total amount of the SRS waste covers 6,500 tons. The cleanup program was accelerated through the Federal Recovery & Reinvestment Act, which allocated US$1.4 billion (1 billion euro) to SRS, mostly to speed up environmental-management projects.

According to the Inspector General’s report, the newest proposal calls for moving the material to a facility owned by Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas, for interim storage. The auditors note (April 9): “Clearly, this choice carries with it a number of significant logistical burdens, including substantial additional costs for, among several items, repackaging at SRS, transportation to Texas, storage at the interim site, and, repackaging and transportation to the yet-to-be determined final disposition point.” A local newspaper, the Augusta Chronicle is citing information from an unnamed source within the department suggesting that it might be better to keep the material at SRS, where it has been ‘safely stored for decades’, until a permanent disposal solution is found.

Despite assertions by EnergySolutions that the action is unnecessary, the Utah Radiation Control Board signed off on a new rule that imposes additional restrictions on the disposal of DU.

EnergySolutions can take no more DU until it shows its radioactive landfill can contain the radioactive waste for thousands of years. The rule, which requires the Clive facility to conduct a performance assessment for disposal of the radioactive material, will be published May 1 and go into effect by June 1. Yet, EnergySolutions is first in line to accept up to 1.4 million tons of DU in coming years - about half from uranium enrichment plants coming online and half from government stockpiles. DU is different from most other Class A because it becomes most hazardous after 1 million years. About 49,000 tons is already buried at  EnergySolutions, and DOE has put the disposal of another 11,000 tons on hold until the state agrees it can come to the Clive facility.

EnergySolutions is building a processing facility for blending more hazardous Class B and Class C waste with Class A waste and has proposed to dispose this waste at its Clive facility. Members of the Utah Radiation Control Board opted against trying to regulate this nuclear industry's practice of mixing low-level radioactive waste with more hazardous B&C waste so that reactors can dispose of waste that now has nowhere else to go. “At very least, DU is incompatible with the state's ban on B&C waste,” said board member Jenkins, “It will present an unacceptable risk after 100 years.”

Meanwhile the NRC is studying on options on how to dispose the DU waste in the mid- and long-term.

The entire report by the U.S. Energy Department's Inspector General is available at

Sources: Augusta Chronicle, The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, all 13 April 2010.
Contact: Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL): 68 S Main St, Suite 400, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, USA.
Tel: +1 801 355-505