By Ashley Soltysiak
Utah will soon face a huge decision — whether or not to allow the disposal of depleted uranium (DU), an extremely long-lived nuclear waste, at EnergySolutions’ facility in our West Desert. But here’s the question that state officials and all Utahns should be asking first: Why are the feds so eager to offload their 700,000-ton problem on our state?
This disposal problem originated decades ago. In 1982, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published rules governing nuclear waste disposal. Back then, the NRC didn’t anticipate the massive volumes of DU that another federal agency, the Department of Energy, would eventually need a place to stash.
DU is the best known of these “unique waste” streams. It is radically different from other Class A waste. Instead of gradually degrading and becoming much less dangerous within a few hundred years, DU actually increases in hazard for 2.1 million years. It will eventually exceed Class A hazard levels — which unequivocally violates our ban.
That’s why the NRC, in a recent hearing in Salt Lake City, has stated that properly classifying this waste is a priority, although not at the top of its to-do list.
This federal bureaucratic delay provides a small window of opportunity for EnergySolutions to capitalize and push Utah to accept DU — before it becomes officially classified out of their reach. They’ve got big-time motivation. According to a company spokesman, they are estimated to earn $15 to $20 million annually if awarded the federal contract.
The irony here is that a viable federal disposal site already exists. The Nevada test site has taken small quantities of DU in the past and is federally owned and operated. That begs the question: Why don’t the feds manage their own problem? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to internalize those disposal costs?
Another big policy question: If a state like Utah is forced to take DU, which is vastly different than the short-lived waste we typically accept, what implications will this have nationally?