MAC: Mines and Communities

Dilema of Uranium disposal

Published by MAC on 2005-03-25
Source: Associated Press


In Utah desert, tons of uranium waste sit near Colorado River.

Dilemas of disposal

TRAVIS REED, Associated Press

March 25, 2005

MOAB, Utah - The engineers here call the worst stuff "slime," and they've got about 6 million tons of it.

For decades, no one even knew there was anything wrong with it - here, in a remote southeastern corner of Utah marked by stunning red rock cliffs, or in any of the other places where the age of The Bomb turned sleepy dustburgs into uranium mining boomtowns in the 1950s.

But now, this facility is the only decommissioned uranium mill overseen by the Department of Energy that hasn't yet been cleaned up, despite falling under the jurisdiction of three different federal agencies that have produced hundreds of pounds of paperwork over more than 50 years.

Energy officials are poised to decide what to do with this waste, sitting in a floodplain, 750 feet from the banks of the Colorado River, which provides drinking water to an estimated 25 million people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and other cities throughout the Southwest.

A chain-link fence checkered with biohazard warnings and "no trespassing" signs surrounds a ramshackle metal building and about 12 million tons of nuclear waste on the old mill site - all that remains of what once was the best thing to happen to this region.

Now, it's one of the greatest sources of fear. The waste has given rise to sharp debate over what should be done with the remains of uranium ore processing, which contain potentially deadly chemicals like ammonia, residual uranium and radon, which can cause lung cancer and leukemia and won't decay for thousands of years.

"The pile has a lot of fluid in it from treatment," said Dianne Nielson, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "All of those contaminants just leak out of the bottom of the pile right into the shallow groundwater. It leaks right into and under the river, and into wetlands on the south side of the river."

Scientists on both sides of the issue are at odds over how likely it is for flooding to damage the site, how the river has changed since waste began piling up in the 1950s and even how dangerous current contamination is.

The site is the Department of Energy's responsibility, and the agency in November outlined four plans for it - three of them moving the waste by truck, rail or pipeline and burying it somewhere else, the other leaving it on the river and covering it with dirt and rocks so it's no longer exposed.

The fourth option would cost hundreds of millions of dollars less than hauling the pile somewhere else, but the notion riles opponents - including Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state's congressional delegation and scores of activists who say it's environmentally unconscionable.

Don Metzler, who manages the site out of the Energy Department's Grand Junction office, said he expects the agency to make a decision sometime this summer. Meanwhile, no one in the department is tipping their hand over what might finally come of the waste.

"I understand these concerns. This site has particular high interest among lots and lots of people," Metzler said.

The DOE, Metzler said, is considering several factors - economic, environmental and political - as it mulls a final decision. But the agency has insisted there's no risk the waste would face catastrophic collapse even in the biggest probable flood if it were covered.

Though no final decision has been made and that's only one of several choices, the fact that it's even being considered has spawned strong opposition. The fear is that a big Colorado River swell rushing through the desert would swallow the poisonous pile, pushing it into a freshwater supply that flows hundreds through the Southwest on its way to the sea.

"I don't think the people of California would ever forgive us, ever forgive the Department of Energy," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told Metzler and other site officials on a recent visit to the pile.

The pile covers 130 acres and contains about 12 million tons of dirt and waste. The worst of the waste - about half - is sandy and purplish, and fills in an earthen berm made of less radioactive dirt, left over from uranium processing, like a jelly doughnut.

Uranium mining boomed in Utah after 1952, when a deep bed of ore near Moab was struck. The industry collapsed in 1962, and the Uranium Reduction Co. sold its mill in 1962 to Denver-based Atlas Corp., which ran it sporadically until declaring bankruptcy in 1998 - after realizing the company couldn't afford to clean up the site.

All decommissioned mills are the responsibility of the Energy Department, but this one took a circuitous path. Most of the sites were transferred to the DOE by congressional order in 1978, but since this one was still processing small amounts of uranium, it was not included. The DOE finally took control of the site in 2001 from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - part of the reason it remains while all the other sites are already taken care of.

Three sites located 17, 28 and 85 miles from the waste have been proposed as new homes for it. The cost estimates range from $407 million to $543 million, depending on whether truck, rail or pipeline is chosen to move it.

Simply capping the pile and leaving it in place would cost just $249 million.

The DOE is required to take public comments on the plans released in November, and received about 1,600. An overwhelming majority favored transporting the waste, Metzler said.

Nielson said that besides flood danger, leaving the waste in place and capping it doesn't protect the river from groundwater contamination, which is already killing fish. If the waste were taken away, it would be buried inside a hole lined with clay and then covered, better sealing it, she said.

Metzler acknowledges that some of the waste is seeping through groundwater into the river, but said DOE tests have shown it dissipates within a half-mile downstream.

"Nobody's at risk," he said. "Nonetheless, I consider that any contaminants getting into the river is something that no one wants."

The EPA has joined the chorus of other agencies against leaving the pile in place, reporting in a letter to the Energy Department the option would be "environmentally unsatisfactory."

Metzler concedes it would be hard to sell the public on keeping the waste where it is, but insists the DOE is on solid scientific ground in considering it.

"We think that (the pile) could be protected if one would choose to do that," he said.

Metzler pointed to an early-1980s flood that brought the Colorado 4 feet high on the pile, but didn't sweep the waste into the river.

"When the waters come out of the bank in a huge flood, the velocities are very low - almost like a big swimming pool. There's not that much erosion," he said.

But Sarah Fields, a Moab resident who's followed the issue and advocated moving the pile since the early 1990s, said that flood is a small demonstration of what the river could do - and the next time, the 25 million people who get water from it might not be so lucky.

Even worse, she says, is that the true health effects of the pile might not be known for years.

"That's the problem with radiation exposure. Sometimes it takes so long for any physical reaction," she said.

Either way the DOE goes in the coming months, the decision must be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Though Congress has no direct oversight, Utah's delegation is expected to try to leverage congressional authority over DOE funding to get the waste moved.

In the meantime, pressure building for more than a decade continues from environmentalists and state officials on the same issue Nielson tackled when she took over as head of environmental issues in Utah in 1993.

"That's the discouraging point," she said. "After all these years, we're just finally

Home | About Us | Companies | Countries | Minerals | Contact Us
© Mines and Communities 2013. Web site by Zippy Info