The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will take about three years to write new rules for disposing of the kind of depleted uranium Utah is poised to accept next month.
Agency officials are conducting a two-day round-table discussion in Salt Lake City to explain their process and get ideas. They said in Wednesday's session at the Marriott University Park hotel that new rules for the radioactive waste are needed because the volumes now being produced never were envisioned when NRC considered disposal methods in the 1980s.
The new rules will affect where and how the powdered material should be buried -- in which climates and how deeply -- and will set standards for reviews of existing dumps, like the one EnergySolutions runs in Tooele County. That site in Clive piles up waste at ground level and covers it.
The material is a low-level radioactive waste that becomes more dangerous over time as it creates radon gas. Some panel members Wednesday questioned whether EnergySolutions' site could be controlled and protected perpetually against both geological catastrophe and unsuspecting future settlers.
"I wonder if you or anyone else in this room believes that a landfill built aboveground is going to be anything resembling intact after 1 million years?" Brigham Young University geology professor Steve Nelson asked an NRC official rhetorically.
The NRC's decision to write new rules for the waste won't preclude EnergySolutions from accepting the material before the rules are complete, agency spokesman David McIntyre said. Still, he said, if the new rules and site-analysis standards disapprove the current disposal methods at Clive, the company could have to move the waste or rebury it with new methods.
The Utah company previously has accepted 49,000 metric tons of depleted uranium and is expected to take another 14,000 from South Carolina starting next month. The Utah Radiation Control Board on Tuesday rejected a call for a moratorium on the waste.
Depleted uranium has military applications in artillery and tank armor, but also is a byproduct of an enrichment process that creates nuclear fuel. Several companies are beginning that enrichment process around the United States. In the past only the government conducted it and produced little waste.
One Utahn in the audience voiced support for waste disposal as an economic development tool, before an NRC moderator asked the crowd to hold off until a comment period scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Whereas Nevada has gambling and Wyoming has fossil fuels to prop up state government, Utah could have radioactive waste, argued Oren Nelson, a founder of Nelson Brothers Construction.
"Utahns can make some money," he said, "and we can save on income tax."
The discussion resumes at the hotel's conference hall Thursday morning at 8:30. The public comment session is at 4:45 p.m.
Thursday at 4:45 p.m.
Marriott University Park, 480 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City.
Round-table summary at 4:15 p.m.