Blended waste is too hot for Utah

Published December 31, 2011 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Michael Cowley

As a lifelong Utahn who has fought for decades to protect this jewel of a state, I read with utter dismay the tortured opinion piece on blended nuclear waste on Dec. 18. Division of Radiation Control chief Rusty Lundberg tried to explain why state regulators have decided to allow EnergySolutions to begin dumping blended waste here — before they do a study on whether this makes sense for Utah.

Lundberg's essay is full of deceptive assertions. Allow us a moment to dismantle the scaffold of misinformation the state is building around their dangerous decision.

He asserts that the blended waste which would be dumped in the EnergySolutions facility in Clive is "less than 1 percent" of the total volume brought there each year. While his volume claim is true, it ignores the extraordinary increase in radioactivity allowed through this new process. Blended waste may be small by volume, but it packs a hell of a punch. So much so that, according to estimates from HEAL Utah, where I serve on the board of directors, blended waste could add as much radioactivity to Clive each year as was disposed there in the facility's first 14 years.

Despite blended waste's potency, Lundberg claims it is not "more radioactive" than other low-level radioactive waste. That's an appalling assertion from our state's lead nuclear waste regulator. A few facts: According to state data, the nuclear waste dumped at Clive in 2010 averaged just over 1.1 millicuries (a measure of radioactivity) per cubic foot. Using data from EnergySolutions, we calculate that blended waste would average between 210 and 333 millicuries per cubic foot initially. That's 200 to 300 times more radioactive. If blending is widely allowed, radioactivity could rise by several thousand times.

Perhaps the most disingenuous of Lundberg's assertions is that blending wouldn't circumvent Utah's ban on class B&C hotter wastes. How does he make the claim? Even if the waste that EnergySolutions brings to Tennessee is of B&C intensity (it is), waste isn't technically classified until it is dumped. It may walk like a duck and talk like a duck and fly like a duck, but the word "duck" is reserved only for ducks that land at dumps, so, sorry, it ain't a duck. Every other player in the nuclear waste industry — from federal regulators to nuclear power plants — would label this waste B&C before it is blended - but not our state regulators. They're sticking to the technical definitions — which, conveniently, offer EnergySolutions a loophole to do what they want.

Why should Utah regulators allow EnergySolutions to flout our ban, to significantly increase the radioactivity brought to Clive each year — waste the people of Utah urged the legislature and governor to forever ban by law? Because, Lundberg solemnly informs us, the nuclear power industry in 36 states lacks a disposal site for B&C wastes. Obviously, Utah must step up! Right? Um, no. The Texas Compact Disposal Facility just opened in Andrews, Texas, run by a competitor to EnergySolutions. It's licensed to take B&C wastes. As is, directly from nuclear power plants.

The only need is EnergySolutions' unsurprising hunger for ever-greater profits. No one should blame a duck for quacking, after all. But what is maddening is how fully our regulators adopt the perverse logic of the companies they're supposed to monitor. Utah deserves better.

Michael Cowley is a member of the board of directors of HEAL Utah.