Gehrke: Utah regulators should reject EnergySolutions' plan to bury depleted uranium before a safety study is finished

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke

In 2009, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman vowed to lay on the railroad tracks to stop shipments of depleted uranium from coming into EnergySolutions’ landfill in picturesque Clive.

Had he done that, maybe we never would have had the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times dissing President Donald Trump (which many have speculated was written by Huntsman; he sorta denied it and I kinda believe him).

At any rate, the outcome of that dust-up between EnergySolutions and the governor was the initiation of a thorough assessment by Utah’s Radiation Control Board to determine whether the company could indeed store the waste safely.

See, the problem is that, while most types of radioactive waste get less dangerous over time, depleted uranium — the stuff that the military uses in armor-piercing munitions and for protective shields — actually gets hotter.

Granted, it doesn’t reach peak radioactivity for about 50,000 years, when EnergySolutions will be long gone. By then, the state formerly known as Utah (having been renamed Spidaville by Gov. Spencer Cox after the Utah Jazz won their eighth NBA title) will be inhabited only by our distant progeny. And probably Orrin Hatch.

But just because it’s centuries away, doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

Which brings us back to that performance assessment that was started seven years ago. Over that span, the state has compiled thousands and thousands of pages of information, conducted computer modeling on the potential threat from earthquakes, fires and floods peering ahead thousands of years.

The work is nearing completion, with a recommendation from the director of the Division of Radiation Control expected early next year.

That’s not soon enough for EnergySolutions, which is asking the Radiation Control Board for an emergency waiver so it can compete for a Defense Department contract to store thousands of tons of depleted uranium before the assessment is complete.

The company will make its pitch to the board Thursday.

You can’t blame EnergySolutions for wanting to make as much money as it can burying as much waste as it can any more than you can blame a Ute fan for hating Brigham Young University — it’s their nature.

The flip side of that, however, is that state regulators are also expected to look out for the health and well-being of the people who call this state home. And they can’t do that effectively when EnergySolutions comes in and tries to short-circuit what from the outside appears to be a thorough, effective process that has been years in the making.

This stuff is different, EnergySolutions contends. They argue that the military waste they want to bury is in metal form and is not as volatile as the barrels of waste from the uranium refining process. And that’s very likely the case. But it doesn’t warrant jumping the gun. Decisions this important should be made carefully, not on the basis of another emergency waiver request by the company.

EnergySolutions has a proven knack for knowing how to play the game and for getting what they want. They are, as my colleague Lee Davidson has reported, the state’s leading donor to political campaigns.

As evidence of the company’s muscle, earlier this year, legislators gave EnergySolutions a $1.7 million break on waste inspection fees the company had previously been required to pay. Instead, we’ll be picking up the tab for those inspections.

The current depleted uranium debate, however, has potential consequences that could stretch thousands of years into the future and shouldn’t be allowed to come down to raw political power.

Recently, Gov. Gary Herbert said that, “I expect the board to follow the law and that will give us guidance to what we can or can’t do.”

Right now, Utahns are counting on the Radiation Control Board to stick to its guns, to finish its work and to act in the public’s interest — and that means letting the science guide its decision.