US, Utah gov reach deal on depleted uranium

AP News
Posted: Dec 17, 2009 7:03 PM

The Department of Energy said Thursday that it has struck a deal with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert that would prohibit radioactive waste from South Carolina from being permanently buried in Utah until stricter state guidelines are put in place.

DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman said the agreement was reached Thursday, two days after Herbert called on the department to stop a train loaded with depleted uranium from leaving the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.

The material is waste from the development of nuclear weapons in the Cold War era.

State regulators say they need more time to determine whether depleted uranium can safely be disposed of at EnergySolutions Inc.'s site about 70 miles west of Salt Lake City. Depleted uranium is different from other waste disposed there because it becomes more radioactive over time, for up to 1 million years.

The first train, carrying 5,408 55-gallon drums of waste, won't be stopped or turned around, Stutsman said. But the DOE agreed to place its waste in temporary storage once it arrives in Utah, rather than permanently disposing of it.

The waste is expected to arrive in Utah in the next two weeks.

Stutsman said Utah regulators will have two months to develop new guidelines for disposing of the material. During that time, the empty train will make its way back to South Carolina to load up more waste. In all, nearly 10,000 metric tons of depleted uranium will be disposed of in Utah. The final two rail shipments are expected to be completed by late spring, but they won't leave for Utah until the new disposal guidelines are set.

Utah regulators and EnergySolutions will "establish conservative criteria for how depleted uranium will be disposed of, with the goal of ensuring the security and safety of Utah citizens," Stutsman said.

For months, the planned shipments had drawn opposition from environmental groups and U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. In September, Matheson urged Energy Secretary Steven Chu to stop the shipments until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finalized its own rules for the material.

However, that isn't expected to be completed until 2012. Funding for the Savannah River Site cleanup is being funded with federal stimulus money, which is intended to create jobs quickly.

"Short of stopping the shipment, the ability to have it stored in a way that's easier to remove it from Clive, Utah, is the next best option," Matheson said in a statement.

The deal, brokered Thursday while Herbert was attending a Western Governors Association meeting in San Diego, signaled a significant victory for the Republican, who has only been in office four months and got the job when Jon Huntsman resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China.

"This is proof that by taking a measured, rational approach and engaging in conversations with stakeholders, we can reach agreements that are acceptable to all parties," Herbert said in a statement.