DOE Continues Waste Shell Game

December 25, 2009

The Department of Energy (DOE) continued its waste shell game by shipping a trainload of depleted uranium wastes from its Savannah River Site in South Carolina to the private facility owned and operated by EnergySolutions, located about 75 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah. Over 5,400 drums of the depleted uranium waste will be stored at the site until a review is completed. The waste was generated through irradiating uranium to produce plutonium for the manufacture of nuclear bombs. It becomes more radioactive and hazardous over time due to the in-growth of decay products like radium and radon gas.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert and DOE recently came to an agreement about storage of the waste after DOE threatened to ship it without an agreement. The wastes will be placed in temporary storage for two months while Utah regulators work to reach agreement with EnergySolutions on more conservative disposal standards. If a performance assessment, soon to become a requirement under state law, later confirms that EnergySolutions' site is inappropriate for depleted uranium disposal, Utah may be stuck with the waste since no other site will currently take it.

This is the same strategy DOE used in 2005 and 2006 when it shipped more than 3,700 containers of high-grade uranium waste from the Fernald site, located near Cincinnati, Ohio, to the privately owned and operated Waste Control Specialists, a Texas facility. It is located five miles east of Eunice, New Mexico and 30 miles west of Andrews, Texas. That waste was stored for four years, twice the amount of time DOE and WCS had promised. After jumping through regulatory hoops, Waste Control Specialists completed disposal in October.

The EnergySolutions dump already has disposed of 49,000 tons of depleted uranium waste. It is estimated that about 700,000 tons of depleted uranium waste is located throughout the DOE complex with no decided disposal path, although a decision could be announced in the next several months. Additional wastes will be generated by the accelerated cleanup work being funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus funding.

If and when the review is completed, DOE plans to load two more trainloads, totally 15,400 drums, destined for Utah.

Christopher Thomas, policy director for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said his group has asked the State of Utah to extend the public comment period on the pending change to the EnergySolutions' license. Thomas argued that the public should have an opportunity to comment on a key provision that would require EnergySolutions to post a surety bond so that if the state determines that the site is unsuitable, there would be funding available in order to remove the waste.

Even so, there is no other U.S. site that can take the waste, so it could be left there. Thomas said, "It's like a game of hot potato and the Energy Department has tagged us 'it.' Now it's sitting in our lap and nobody else is playing."

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