Utahns join national debate on new radioactive waste rules
Utahns were in Washington on Thursday to help federal regulators update and maybe overhaul laws on the disposal of low-level radioactive waste.
Among all the states, Utah probably has the biggest stake in the issue. All but a tiny fraction of this waste from around the nation is buried in the Tooele County landfill operated by Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions Inc.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's goal is to modernize national regulations. Industry, regulators and advocates generally support the concept. Right now, the laws are a mind-boggling patchwork stitched together over a more than half a century and based on last-century science.
But that's where the agreement seems to end.
Advocates, including the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, fear important health and safety protections will be lost.
Christopher Thomas, HEAL's executive director and a panelist in part of Thursday's discussion, questioned whether the new system being considered would allow EnergySolutions to take higher-hazard wastes, including stuff the Legislature banned in 2005.
"This is classic EnergySolutions behavior," said Thomas, a panelist in the discussion about public-policy issues surrounding possible changes. "On the one hand, they tell the governor and the people of Utah that they won't bring hotter class B and C nuclear waste to Utah, and, on the other hand, they work behind the scenes to get rid of the class B and C definitions so they can dump that waste in Utah."
Industry and regulators challenged that accusation, saying their focus is on what the rules should be for certifying a landfill safe. They said they want a consistent system that protects public health.
EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker noted that the meeting, attended by at least two company executives, was intended to get initial input from stakeholders.
"There are no pending changes being proposed by the NRC at this time," he said in a statement. "And therefore it would be inappropriate for us to speculate on how these proceedings will affect the Clive facility [in Tooele County]."
The company operates two of the nation's three commercial sites for low-level radioactive waste, which generally comes from government cleanups and power plants, and loses most of its hazard in about 500 years. (High-level waste remains lethal for thousands of years and has no U.S. disposal options since the demise of the Yucca Mountain plan.)
Since EnergySolutions' Utah site opened in the late 1980s, it has taken more than 97 percent of all the waste that has gone to commercial sites mostly class A, or low-hazard waste, that loses most of its radiological hazard within 100 years.
In 2005, Utah lawmakers banned waste higher than class A in the state. But state regulators have continued to struggle over unusual types of waste that don't easily fit the old definitions, such as depleted uranium and blended waste. The Utah Division of Radiation Control has spent more than two years trying to develop a system to ensure the EnergySolutions site can contain the odd wastes well into the future.
Rusty Lundberg, Utah's top nuclear regulator and a panelist at Thursday's NRC meeting, said he wants the state to maintain the "unique and complex balance" in regulations for industry and the public. He pointed in particular to Utah rules on depleted uranium, which meets the class A standard now but grows increasingly hazardous for more than 1 million years.
While industry fretted that it is unrealistic to set safety standards that apply in 20,000 years or beyond, Lundberg indicated that the public's concerns extend at least that far into the future.
"The public," he said, "expects confidence [in a site's safety] in the near term as much as it does in the long term."
The NRC expects to have a draft proposal by year's end. Next July, the agency plans to finalize any new rules.
O To find locations of radioactive low-level waste disposal facilities, high-level waste disposal facilities, and disposal facilities for waste incidental to reprocessing, visit http://www.nrc.gov/waste.html