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Alternate feed material: Putting radwaste through uranium mills

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(June 29, 2001) Uranium-mining companies continue the practice of putting "alternate feed material" through uranium mills. This can include material that would otherwise have to be disposed of as low-level radioactive waste, but contains a small amount of uranium. Activists continue to oppose this practice.

(551.5295) WISE Amsterdam / WISE Uranium - The most well-known site at which "alternate feed material" is used is probably the International Uranium Corporation (IUC) White Mesa Mill in the US state of Utah (see WISE News Communique 540.5229, "Uranium mining in 2000"). This mill has accepted material from a variety of sources, extracting the uranium and dumping what is left over in its tailing ponds.

Some of the material travels considerable distances. In 1997, for example, the mill started using residues from the processing of tantalum ore by Cabot Corporation in Pennsylvania. These residues contain thorium, which is also radioactive, as well as uranium. On 27 October 1997, liquid leakage was discovered in containers containing Cabot residue in Toronto, Canada, which had been shipped by railroad from Pennsylvania.

However, White Mesa's activities go beyond recovering uranium from what would otherwise be waste from extraction of other minerals. In 1999, the mill processed material from the US Department of Energy's Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). This consisted of tailings and contaminated soil from uranium extraction for the US nuclear weapons program.

IUC received US$4,050,000 to process FUSRAP material from Tonawanda in New York State, which contained uranium worth no more than US$600,000. This led to accusations that IUC was really being paid to dispose of the residue in the mill's tailings pond, avoiding the need for it to be sent to a low-level radioactive waste disposal site, so that the mill was in effect becoming a glorified nuclear waste dump.

Many hazards arise from the mill's activity. In 1999 there was an incident in which 47 times the allowed level of chloroform was found in a monitoring well. The chloroform was thought to come for a former laboratory on the site. Nevertheless, campaigners say that White Mesa drinking water has not been monitored on a regular schedule.

The mill sits on Native American lands, and several sacred sites have already been disturbed by the mill's operation. The Ute people have often taken part in demonstrations against the mill.

Trucking the alternate feed material to the mill also presents hazards. On 29 September 1999 a truck carrying 20 tons of material from Tonawanda tipped over near Cisco, Utah, spilling about half of its contents.

Citizens and environmental groups in southern Utah held a "Walk Against Nuclear Waste" in the last week of May 2001. More than 40 individuals walked the 80 miles from Blanding (the town next to the White Mesa mill) to Moab. Cosponsoring groups included Moab-based Living Rivers, Glen Canyon Action Network, and the Sierra Club Glen Canyon Group, as well as HEAL-UTAH from Salt Lake City.

The activists fear the White Mesa site will end up in a similar mess to the bankrupt Atlas Corp.'s Moab tailings site (see WISE News Communique 514.5049,"The cost of safe drinking water: Moab as a case") where contaminated water from tailings continues to leak into the Colorado River. As this News Communique goes to press, a bill is making its way through Congress that includes some money for planning the cleanup process and stabilizing the Moab site.

The activists demand the closure of the White Mesa mill and the cleanup of the mill site. They also oppose IUC's recent application to process radioactive lead waste from the Molycorp site in California.

Uranium mill tailings are an important though often neglected source of radiation. Over a period of 10,000 years, uranium mill tailings can contribute more to the collective radiation dose received by the population as a result of nuclear power than the reactor itself or the spent fuel (see the Nuclear Fuel Population Health Risk Calculator on the WISE Uranium web site). The use of alternate feed material containing other radioactive materials can only make this worse.


Contact:WISE Uranium (