Utah gov to DOE: Halt depleted uranium shipment

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2009 5:48 PM

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert sent Energy Secretary Steven Chu a letter Tuesday asking him to halt the shipment of nearly 15,000 drums of low-level radioactive waste from South Carolina for disposal in Utah.

Herbert's letter was released hours before the DOE was scheduled to begin the first of three shipments from the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.

DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman said the first shipments would continue as planned and would arrive in Utah in the next two weeks. The second and third rail cars won't leave South Carolina until 2010, she said.

The Department of Energy is circumventing state regulators' efforts to ensure that a private disposal facility in Utah's west desert can safely dispose of the depleted uranium, said Herbert, a Republican.

Depleted uranium is different from other waste EnergySolutions Inc. disposes of at its site because it becomes more radioactive over time for up to one million years. The South Carolina waste is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process used to make nuclear weapons during the Cold War era.

State regulators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have acknowledged that difference and have started a rule-making process to address whether it may need to be disposed of differently.

The NRC isn't expected to finalize its rules until 2012 at the earliest and it will likely be several more months before state regulators finish their rules.

"It is only prudent that there be further study to determine how this waste is best stored before we accept it into the State of Utah," Herbert wrote. "As a scientist yourself, I know you can appreciate that good public policy requires good science, and I am concerned that DOE's decision to ship this waste to Utah now is based more on politics than on science."

Funding for the Savannah River Site cleanup comes from federal stimulus money, which is intended to quickly create jobs.

Herbert's letter mirrors one sent by U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, in September. Matheson's staff had met with DOE officials to persuade them not to ship any of the material until NRC rule making was finalized.

The DOE responded to Matheson on Thursday, saying the department had consulted with regulators and was ready to begin the first of the three planned rail shipments.

A Nov. 17 presentation given to the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board said the first train would contain 5,408 drums and that all shipments would be completed by late spring 2010.

That same presentation said if shipments to Utah were interrupted, the waste would be diverted to the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles north of Las Vegas.

The DOE has since said that Nevada has been ruled out as an option because it would have to do an environmental assessment before any new waste could be disposed there. That would take at least a year, which the DOE says is too long.