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Trademarking a nuclear mess

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 22, 2002) Two U.S. nuclear corporations have hit upon the idea of mixing two nuclear waste products - contaminated low-enriched uranium and depleted uranium - then calling the resulting mess "natural uranium ore" and giving it a trademark. This is the latest ploy in what might be called "poor man's reprocessing" - the "recycling" of "low-level" nuclear waste by putting it through uranium mills.

(577.5464) WISE Amsterdam - Public opposition to nuclear waste dumps makes it very attractive for the industry to find other ways of dealing with nuclear waste. Since no amount of chemical processing can stop nuclear waste from being radioactive, the nuclear industry tries other methods of reducing public concern.

The latest idea is an attempt to deal with nuclear waste that would be classed as "low-level" except that it contains uranium, so that it remains radioactive for millions of years. The idea is to mix two types of nuclear waste products - depleted uranium and contaminated low-enriched uranium - and describe the resulting mix as "natural uranium ore". It is still just as radioactive, and it is certainly not natural, but at least it sounds less harmful!

Two U.S. nuclear corporations consider this to be such a valuable idea that they have trademarked the resulting product - "USM Ore(tm) " - and set up a joint venture company to exploit it. International Uranium Corporation (IUC) and Nuclear Fuel Systems (NFS) have set up the new company, "Urizon Recovery Systems, LLC", to produce this "natural" product (1).

Low-enriched uranium that is contaminated with other radioactive materials continues to be a problem for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). And while some of the depleted uranium which is left over from uranium enrichment has been made into munitions (as used in the Gulf War and in the former Yugoslavia), most of it remains as waste.

By combining these two nuclear waste products in such proportions as to simulate uranium ore, it can be processed in a uranium mill as if it had been dug out of the ground. However, the result of this is that the contamination present in the DOE material will mostly end up in the uranium mill tailings pond, posing a potential environmental threat. Part of it will remain in the yellow cake produced by the uranium mill, increasing its radioactivity and possibly even contaminating uranium conversion and enrichment plants.

While this "USM Ore(tm)" approach is new, the processing of radioactive waste and by-products in uranium mills has been carried out for some time (2). Indeed, the White Mesa Mill in Utah, where this "trademarked" mixture is to be sent, is already processing "alternate feed material" from various sources (3).

Taxpayer dollars
The NFS plant in Erwin, Tennessee, where the mixture is to be produced, is situated in Unicoi County, near to one of the sites rejected for the proposed LES uranium enrichment plant after local opposition (4). The plant is also involved in a project to blend down bomb-grade uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power stations - a project that, ironically, would reduce demand for uranium from other sources such as "USM Ore(tm)" (5).

However, the key to the new project is taxpayer funding. NFS spokesman Tony Treadway was quoted in The Greeneville Sun as saying that the project cannot go forward unless the DOE provides funding for a "small-scale" feasibility test of the conversion process (6).


Contact: WISE Uranium