Radioactive waste from Estonia may soon be coming to San Juan County mill

(Jim Urquhart | Tribune file photo) Harold Roberts holds a sample of yellowcake uranium produced at the White Mesa Mill south of Blanding, Utah, in 2007. Energy Fuels, the mill's owner, recently requested a permit from the state of Utah to import radioactive waste from Estonia, which will be partially reprocessed into yellowcake.

The Silmet rare metals processing plant in Estonia is more than 5,000 miles from San Juan County, but the White Mesa Mill south of Blanding could soon be receiving radioactive waste from the eastern European facility.

In April 2019, Energy Fuels Resources, which owns and operates the White Mesa Mill, requested to modify its radioactive materials license with the state of Utah in order to accept its first waste shipment from overseas, and a hearing on the proposal was conducted Wednesday over video chat by the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.

In its application, Energy Fuels said the Estonian government has required the plant, which produces the metals tantalum and niobium, to cease some of its operations until it finds a way to dispose of 2,000 drums of radioactive byproducts that are being stored on-site.

With no licensed facilities capable of accepting the waste in Estonia, the company proposed shipping it to Energy Fuels’ Utah mill where the uranium content in the waste, which is less than 1% of the material by weight, will be removed. The remainder will be disposed of in the mill’s tailings sites.

Sarah Fields of the San Juan County-based group Uranium Watch requested the state hold Wednesday’s public hearing, and she was the only member of the public to submit written questions before a May 5 deadline.

The bulk of Fields’ questions, which were answered by Division of Waste Management staff and attorneys from the Utah Attorney General’s Office, had to do with the state’s decision to classify the Estonian material, not as radioactive waste, but as uranium-bearing “ore,” or alternate feed, under Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines.

In the public comment portion of the meeting, Grand Canyon Trust staff attorney Aaron Paul spoke to that issue as well. He argued that referring to the material as anything but waste could be misleading to the public.

“The Grand Canyon Trust opposes the business of allowing the mill to process alternate feeds, and that’s especially true when Energy Fuels is being paid to do it,” Paul said. “When the company is getting a fee to process alternate feed ... that fee is an obvious signal that what the company is really doing is being paid to operate a waste disposal business. It’s not worth it for the company to buy that feed and turn it into yellowcake.”

Energy Fuels did not respond to a question from The Salt Lake Tribune about whether or not it will be receiving a fee to process the Estonian waste or other alternate feed from a tunnel project in Colorado. Instead, company spokesperson Curtis Moore noted that nuclear energy production, which requires yellowcake, reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are extremely proud of the White Mesa Mill’s exceptional record of environmental protection and the social benefits of our alternate feed recycling program,” Moore said. “In only the past three years, Energy Fuels has recycled enough uranium to replace the amount of coal that would fill over 3,000 miles of coal cars connected end to end. This avoided almost 44.6 million tons of [carbon dioxide] emissions. Last year alone, Energy Fuels recycled enough vanadium to build 4.5 Golden Gate Bridges.”

Paul noted that when the White Mesa Mill was first licensed in 1979, it was proposed to have a 15-year lifespan processing uranium ore from regional mines, not the reprocessing and disposal of radioactive waste.

“The documents surrounding that decision are crystal clear,” Paul said. “... if you lived in the [nearby Ute Mountain Ute community of] White Mesa, in Blanding or Bluff or elsewhere in the region in 1979, you would have thought that by 1994 the trucks going to and from the mill would be gone; that the mill wouldn’t be running; that it wouldn’t be putting out smoke when it’s operating; that there wouldn’t be smells.”

The state’s “regulatory blessing” to allow the processing and disposal of radioactive waste at the mill, according to Paul, is a major reason why the business has survived for so long despite a depressed domestic uranium market.

The mill has accepted alternate feed from across North America, including from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Waste trucked to the mill from Wyoming has twice spilled during transport, once on Highway 191 near Blanding in 2017.

“The facility has gone from being the North American continent’s dry, low-level radioactive waste disposal facility of choice … to now being the world’s radioactive waste dump,” said Scott Clow, the environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has land three miles south of the mill.

“That is something the tribe opposes,” he added. “The tribe does not want these materials to continue to be delivered to their neighborhood, their traditional lands, and stored there forever.”

In January, the tribe sent a letter to the state pointing to “overwhelming data showing significant trends of increasing groundwater contaminants and acidification” below the mill site and requesting the state conduct a thorough investigation into the root causes of the contamination, which include “rare toxic metals” such as beryllium, cadmium, nickel and thallium.

The tribe argued the metals “are found in great abundance in the tailings cells and facility process solutions and have not been scientifically shown to be naturally occurring in the local geology or groundwater," indicating there may be leakage occurring.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Clow expressed concerns about Cell 3, a 40-year-old pond with a single-layer plastic liner, which the tribe fears is linked to groundwater contamination.

“Cell 3 has a leak detection system and the liner is performing as engineered,” Moore, the company spokesperson, said.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for 2021 sets aside $150 million to create a stockpile of domestically mined uranium, and his administration has proposed other ways to support uranium companies with operations in the United States such as Energy Fuels, which is one of the largest private employers in San Juan County.

Public comment on Energy Fuels’ requested permit modifications will be accepted by the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control through June 5. Comments can be emailed to dwmrcpublic@utah.gov with the subject line, “Public Comment on White Mesa RML Renewal.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.