* A report released recently by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) indicates that the health effects of depleted uranium may be more severe than reflected in current federal exposure standards. The report addresses potential long-term storage in New Mexico of thousands of tons of depleted uranium as a result of proposed uranium enrichment activities in Lea County.
The report finds that depleted uranium may mutate cells, create and promote tumors and effect neurologic function, similar to lead, among other things. Also, depleted uranium may cross the placenta and harm developing fetuses. However, federal exposure standards only address depleted uraniumÕs effects on the kidneys, which means they may be too lenient to protect from other harmful effects.
The uranium enrichment facility proposed by Louisiana Energy Services (LES) for Lea County would separate uranium into its component isotopes. Uranium-235, or enriched uranium, would be used as fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. Uranium-238, or depleted uranium, is waste. The depleted uranium from the LES facility would be added to the 740,000 tons of such waste awaiting permanent disposal nationwide.
Lea County residents are concerned that LES will not develop a disposal plan for the depleted uranium and that the waste may remain in Lea County indefinitely. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and Public Citizen, two public advocacy groups that are legally intervening in the licensing process for the facility, commissioned the IEER report. The report gauges the potential fiscal guarantee required to compensate Lea County for this nuclear waste liability. The report concludes that LES would have to provide at least $2.5 billion in financial guarantees to cover the liability. Michael Mariotte, of NIRS, said, "The people of New Mexico and the taxpayers of the United States may find themselves saddled with enormous liabilities."
Although LES has proposed disposing of the waste in abandoned uranium mines or in a shallow geologic repository, IEER's analysis indicates that depleted uranium has a radioactivity similar to that of transuranic waste, which requires deep geologic disposal. IEER estimates that the risk from exposure to depleted uranium may be as much as four times more dangerous than plutonium-239, which is one of the primary contaminants in transuranic waste. Further, IEER notes that uranium is more mobile in the environment than plutonium, which means that it may disperse more quickly to surrounding areas.
According to IEER, depleted uranium is particularly dangerous to children. The report states that the risk to a child of developing a fatal cancer from depleted uranium is approximately six to eight times greater than the average risk currently used by the Environmental Protection Agency to set exposure standards.
Brice Smith, of IEER, said, "The health risks of depleted uranium may be far more varied than is recognized in federal regulations today."
The staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses such facilities, has attempted to reclassify depleted uranium as low-level waste to facilitate disposal. Arjun Makhijani, of IEER, said, "To paraphrase Shakespeare, dangerous radioactive waste by any other name would still pose significant health risks."