SALT LAKE CITY — When figuring out if it is going to be safe to allow large quantities of depleted uranium to be buried in the desert 65 miles west of Salt Lake City, the state of Utah has to contemplate a long list of “what ifs” that could happen — and over a long, long period of time.
There are events like war, meteor strikes, volcanic activity, the return of large lakes like Lake Bonneville every 16,000 years and even, to some degree, the threat to stable disposal caused by burrowing ants.
EnergySolutions is proposing to dispose of 3,507 metric tons of depleted uranium at Clive, Tooele County, and it could be the nation’s repository of its inventory of 700,000 more tons of the radioactive waste, which is a byproduct of nuclear production material.
Even the federal regulators — the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — have yet to craft a rule on the storage of this brand of radioactive waste, leaving Utah to forge out on its own with building a framework that is protective of public health and the environment.
Depleted uranium falls within the radioactive levels Utah has established by law that it is willing to accept — low level radioactive waste — described as Class A. “Hotter” wastes such as B and C are prohibited.
The problem posed by the storage of depleted uranium stems from its increasing radioactivity — it continues to get “hotter” over time, peaking at 2.1 million years and staying at the level for billions of more years.
Utah regulators required EnergySolutions to come up with contingencies in its storage plans that document how its site would fare for a period of 10,000 years — and beyond that looking at “deep time” scenarios until it reaches peak radioactive levels.