It's not really a question whether Utah will be the disposal site for three trainloads of depleted uranium from a government atomic-weapons complex cleanup in South Carolina.
It's a matter of how soon.
Under an agreement Gov. Gary Herbert reached two weeks ago with the U.S. Energy Department, the answer appears to be about six weeks -- much sooner than the state Radiation Control Board expects to complete its review of safety issues surrounding depleted uranium.
After spending most of 2009 looking at DU, the board anticipates it will be at least another year before it is ready to say what engineering standards are needed to minimize the long-term hazard posed by DU disposal at the EnergySolutions site, located about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
But under the governor's oral agreement with the Department of Energy, state regulators have until mid-February to develop science-based conditions for burying the Savannah River cleanup waste at the EnergySolutions Inc. disposal site in Tooele County.
Peter Jenkins, chairman of the state board, was surprised to hear Herbert's Dec. 17 deal had a two-month deadline. He has yet to be briefed by the Governor's Office.
At the time it was announced, Jenkins praised the agreement for allowing a thorough safety review before more DU is buried in Utah.
"It's encouraging to hear the Department of Energy is respecting the state's regulatory process. I don't think it would be in anyone's interest for us to feel rushed in making decisions regarding this waste based on incomplete or inadequate information," Jenkins said within hours of Herbert's announcement of his agreement with DOE. "With these shipments temporarily on hold, we will be able to determine the most appropriate action prior to any potential disposal."
But under the accelerated timeline now coming to light, the DU from South Carolina could already be buried in Tooele County before Jenkins' board acts. The panel won't vote until March 1, at the earliest, on an updated site-assessment requirement for EnergySolutions. The company has said it would complete its report. It would then would be subject to state approval.
The board isn't alone in seeing the issue as complex enough to require extensive scrutiny.
Federal regulators have been contemplating the safe disposal of large quantities of DU for four years and don't expect to have even basic answers for a few more.
Jason Perry, Herbert's chief of staff, noted that the governor was trying to negotiate a little time and more safety for the DU after a trainload of it already was headed to Utah.
"This agreement is not intended to be the be-all and end-all," he said, noting that the radiation board's work is still important.
"It's what you have to do when you are in a short time frame and the train has literally left the station."
As terms of Herbert's unwritten deal become public, the reality has begun to sink in that South Carolina's waste problem will become Utah's.
Dane Finerfrock, director of Utah's Division of Radiation Control, said his marching orders from Herbert are "very explicit."
In two months, state regulators and the company are required to scientifically evaluate the benefits of deeper burial, beefed up radon monitoring and a tougher cover. His job here, Finerfrock notes, is much more narrow in scope than the comprehensive studies by the NRC and state radiation board.
Finerfrock said the company has promised to deliver the evaluation by the end of January. Then his agency will have to determine whether additional measures are required and the company would have to decide whether to agree to them. Any agreement regulators and the company reach would be enforceable, probably as additions to EnergySolutions' state operating license, he said.
"Everybody is playing on the same field," Finerfrock said, "and we have a moving target that makes it difficult."
But he adds: "It's doable."
DU is treated as "Class A" radioactive waste, but the NRC noted about a year ago that it never anticipated so much highly concentrated DU in a surface landfill, so it is not sure what standards are reasonable for containing large quantities at sites like EnergySolutions' -- especially since DU actually becomes more hazardous over time.
EnergySolutions had no comment on its role in dealing with the Savannah River shipments. The company is part of the cleanup contractor team in South Carolina, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. And it stands to receive $2.6 million for disposing of the DU, according to the Energy Department.
The Tooele County site already contains 49,000 tons of DU. Not counting the 11,000 tons from the current Savannah River campaign, the company expects the DU at its site to remain within the Class A hazard limits for about 35,000 years.
Jen Stutsman, an Energy Department spokeswoman, said once Utah's new disposal standards are in place, the 5,400 drums of DU shipped to EnergySolutions in December and held in temporary storage can be buried.
As soon as those drums were unloaded, the train carrying them was to return to Savannah River to be reloaded immediately, but it won't head for Utah until "more stringent measures" are in place, Stutsman said. A third and final shipment would soon follow to complete the campaign.
Vanessa Pierce, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, called the plans disappointing. She questioned the reason for what she considers a rush.
"It's horribly short-sighted and backwards to do this hastily," she said.
One factor contributing to the decision-making is that the Savannah River cleanup received $1.6 billion in stimulus funds. The Energy Department must spend the $22 million for loading, shipping and storing the three-part Savannah River campaign, which includes work by several contractors, by the end of next year.
"At the end of the day," said Pierce, "it's disappointing because this is not a trivial amount of waste they will be accepting. The health and safety of Utahns deserves more consideration than this."
Jenkins, the radiation board chairman, said he will request a briefing on the Herbert-DOE agreement at the panel's Jan. 12 meeting.
One concern about the deal: its potential impact on EnergySolutions' request for more time to comment on the new board's proposed regulation, which sets out minimum safety standards for any additional DU EnergySolutions wants to accept.
"It's been increasingly clear that before any further action on DU takes place," said Jenkins, "this rule should be finalized because the state has decreasing options for dealing with it down the road."
According to EnergySolutions Inc.'s 2007 application to import low-level radioactive waste from Italy, depleted uranium would come to Utah as part of the cleanup of Italy's dismantled power plants. The company asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to import 20,000 tons of waste from Italy, process it at a plant in Tennessee and dispose of 1,600 tons at its Tooele County landfill. A regional radioactive waste organization, supported by the state of Utah, has said the foreign waste is not allowed, but the company has asked a court to say the organization has no authority over its Utah site. That case is scheduled to go before an appeals court later this month.