DOE Shipments of Depleted Uranium to Utah Postponed

October 9, 2009

The Department of Energy (DOE) recently postponed plans to ship nearly 15,000 drums of depleted uranium from its South Carolina facility to a commercial disposal facility in Utah. On September 16, Utah Congressman Jim Matheson wrote Energy Secretary Steven Chu asking that the shipments be suspended until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) finalizes its rules on disposal of depleted uranium (DU). The DU was scheduled for shipment from the Savannah River Site to the EnergySolutions, Inc. disposal facility, located 70 miles west of Salt Lake City.

Depleted uranium is created through the uranium enrichment process. It is different from other low-level radioactive waste because it becomes more radioactive over tens of thousands of years. The NRC recently recognized this distinction for the first time. The federal agency is currently establishing guidelines for safe disposal of depleted uranium. The NRC process may take three to four years to complete.

EnergySolutions, which won the DOE contract to dispose of the Savannah River Site waste, has claimed that it can safely dispose of the approximately 10,000 metric tons of DU. The corporation has taken voluntary steps to amend its state license in order to provide additional safeguards that it believes the NRC might adopt.

Last month, the Utah Radiation Control Board denied a request from an environmental group to place a moratorium on DU disposal until the NRC process is finalized.

Upon learning about the DOE announcement to suspend the shipments, Congressman Matheson said, "Scientists have pointed out that DU represents a massive quantity of radioactive material in highly concentrated form. It becomes increasingly radioactive and then stays that way for a million years. It only makes sense that rules for its disposal take that into account. I will continue to press this with DOE."

Vanessa Pierce, Executive Director of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said, "Even the NRC acknowledges that it's an outstanding question whether depleted uranium should be going to a facility like EnergySolutions. It is therefore troubling - to say the least - that the DOE has fast-tracked its shipment to Utah. Our hope is that in the coming weeks, the DOE will re-evaluate its plans to ship its DU to EnergySolutions given than there are very real health and safety risks with storing such a long-lived waste in a facility designed to last only 500 years."

EnergySolutions is also working to import low-level waste from Italy for disposal at its Utah site. Several months ago they offered the State of Utah a deal that they would split any revenues if EnergySolutions were allowed to import and dispose of the waste. The anticipated annual revenues are $100 million.

Congressman Matheson, along with Congressman Chaffetz, also of Utah, have responded with a proposed bill, called the Radioactive Import Deterrence Act, which would ban the importation of foreign nuclear waste. Congressional hearings will be held next week.

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