"This is a monumental win for the State of Utah," Governor Herbert said. "At one point, we were told these trains were all but on the tracks, making their way to Utah. The Department of Energy has now agreed, after we registered our concerns, that those trains will head elsewhere."
The governor emphasized that, in addition to halting planned shipments, "the Department of Energy has agreed it will take back the depleted uranium it sent in December if we cannot implement disposal processes that ensure the long-term health and safety of all Utahns."
The Governor met Monday in Washington, DC with Ines Triay, DOE's Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management. As a result of that meeting, the Department of Energy has agreed to divert two train loads of depleted uranium originally intended for storage at EnergySolutions' facility in Clive, Utah.
Triay agreed that a DOE representative will travel to Utah to address the state's Radiation Control Board and will work closely with state regulators to develop a site-specific performance assessment to determine if depleted uranium can be safely stored in the state of Utah. That process is expected to take up to two years.
The first DOE shipment of some 3,500 tons of radioactive material arrived in December from the Savannah River Site. It is being held in temporary storage until acceptable parameters for permanent storage are put in place.
U.S. stockpiles of depleted uranium (Photo courtesy HEAL Utah)
If proper storage procedures cannot be achieved to the state's satisfaction, or if independent testing of the barrels reveals the waste exceeds Class A levels, the Department of Energy will remove the depleted uranium from the state.
"The Department of Energy will be actively engaged in this process, and has committed to me, personally, that it will be responsible if the waste is not what it purports to be," Governor Herbert said. "I appreciate federal officials' time and attention to this matter and their understanding of its critical importance to the people of Utah."
Utah's problem arose with a March 2009 ruling by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that depleted uranium is Class A waste, the least hazardous category of radioactive waste.
EnergySolutions, the nation's largest commercial nuclear dump site about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, is the Department of Energy's site of choice for the disposal of these depleted uranium stockpiles. EnergySolutions has signed a contract with the Department of Energy to dispose of 14,000 drums of concentrated depleted uranium from the Savannah River Site.
Two environmental groups are calling on the Department of Energy to take back the 3,500 tons of radioactive material already in the state.
The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, HEAL Utah, and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, IEER, based in Maryland, say that depleted uranium grows more radioactive over time and will eventually exceed the hotter standards of Class B and Class C waste.
They maintain that Governor Herbert negotiated the agreement with the DOE to stop radioactive shipments to Utah based in part on a report commissioned by HEAL Utah that found reprocessed uranium is not appropriate for disposal at the EnergySolutions' facility.
The report by IEER president Dr. Arjun Makhijani and statistical consultant Dr. Harry Chmelynski, found that at least 680 of the depleted uranium drums could violate Utah's limits on nuclear waste disposal.
The report alleges that the federal government has mischaracterized the radionuclide content of the nuclear waste shipments as meeting Utah's Waste Acceptance Criteria, when a large number of drums are very likely to exceed those limits for technetium-99.
The drums' uranium content and concentration exceed what is covered under federal low-level waste rules, the report shows. In addition, "the DOE shipments are reprocessed uranium, whose disposal as Class A waste in any amount is not permitted under federal rules," the groups argue.
The groups said in a statement today that the controversy "demonstrates the nation's lack of a coherent nuclear waste policy."
President Barack Obama plans to zero out funding for Yucca Mountain and "take steps" to withdraw the pending license application for the nation's only geologic high-level nuclear waste repository, according to the administration's FY 2011 budget.
Nevada state officials and the Nevada Congressional Delegation, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have fought to kill the Yucca Mountain waste dump for years over fears that its location 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in a seismically active area would not keep the radioactive material safely isolated for the thousands of years it will take for it to decay into a safer state.
President Obama has appointed a high-level Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to determine how to manage the nation's high-level nuclear waste, which is now being stored at power plants, national laboratories and Defense Department sites around the country.
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