EnergySolutions wants an exemption so it can dispose of uranium munitions in Utah

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) David Squires, general manager at Clive Operations for EnergySolutions, stands next to an area ready to accept large quantities of depleted uranium on April 2, 2015.

EnergySolutions has yet to win permission from Utah regulators to accept depleted uranium, but the radiated-waste handler is seeking exemptions that would allow it to bury several thousand tons of retired armor-piercing munitions that contain the radioactive material.

Because of its density, 1.6 times heavier than lead, depleted uranium is used in “penetrators,” the tips of projectiles that can travel through metal and concrete, increasing weapons' lethality. The Army stores millions of these rounds in bunkers at the Tooele Army Depot, 25 miles from the company’s Clive dump, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, according to an Aug. 24 letter EnergySolutions sent to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Material would also come from a munitions facility in Indiana.

On Thursday, the DEQ’s waste-management board agreed to open a 30-day public comment window next month and to hear the waste handler’s pitch at a Sept. 13 meeting.

“This material is already in Utah,” said Mark Walker, EnergySolutions’ vice president for marketing. "This is in our backyard. It is also in a metal form and considered small quantities. It’s not explosive. We safely dispose of other DU [depleted uranium]. Managing it this way, it will be safely disposed of. There will not be an issue.”

But environmental activists see problems, starting with EnergySolutions’ regular appearances before the waste board, seeking variations to waste regulations that were crafted to protect the environment, public health and safety.

“It could open the floodgates for other forms of DU,” said Grace Olscamp, spokeswoman for environmental advocacy group HEAL Utah. "We see this as an excuse to rush the process. There’s no way to guarantee that it can be safely stored and no guarantee that the responsibility to store it will fall back on the state.”

(Photo courtesy of EnergySolutions) In this 2015 courtesy photo, EnergySolutions is temporarily storing barrels of depleted uranium in a controlled warehouse at their Clive facility in Utah's west desert. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is finalizing its regulation for how this waste will be processed. It will eventually be buried in a cell at the Clive facility.

The proposal emerges a few months before the DEQ is expected to release a long-awaited “performance assessment” of the Clive dump’s ability to safely store DU for tens of thousands of years. A byproduct of the uranium enrichment process to make nuclear fuel, DU is not highly radioactive immediately. It’s categorized as Class A waste, the least dangerous level and the only level that EnergySolutions is licensed to handle.

Over time, DU gets hotter and more dangerous, exceeding Class A thresholds in 50,000 years. By then, Utah will be a much different place, with the Clive site possibly back underwater if Lake Bonneville returns.

The U.S. Department of Energy has stockpiled 750,000 tons of depleted uranium in a granular oxide form. It began shipping it to Utah in 2009, but then-Gov. Jon Huntsman put up a road block and initiated the review of the Clive dump.

In the years since, EnergySolutions has constructed a cell to forever entomb 8.7 million cubic yards of Class A waste. The military’s projectile tips would fill 0.4 percent of that capacity, or 2,668 cubic yards, wrote EnergySolutions engineer Timothy Orton in the Aug. 24 letter. In this metallic form, the material is less hazardous than the oxides that emerge from the enrichment process.

“Depleted uranium metal does not generate dust and emits radon gas at rates significantly lower than depleted uranium oxide,” he wrote. “Due to these differences, depleted uranium metal need not be managed under the same restrictions as depleted uranium oxide.”

Over the next four years, the military intends to dismantle up to 7 million 30-millimeter shells a year, separating them from their tips, which would be disposed as hazardous waste.

“Right now it’s in bunkers, not disposed properly,” Walker said.

That’s no reason to bypass state rules, HEAL contends.

“There are state regulatory processes that have to be considered,” said HEAL policy associate Jessica Reimer. “What is it about this DU that is different, and what is it about it that EnergySolutions desires an exemption to laws that protect our health and safety?”

The exemption is the third one EnergySolutions has sought from DEQ over the past eight months. The other two didn’t have to do with depleted uranium, but, like the military munitions, they involved novel waste streams that weren’t considered when waste-handling rules were set, according to Walker.

But HEAL worries that a troubling precedent is being set, enabling EnergySolutions to evade regulations when they become inconvenient.

“How can we trust them to take care of this waste safety if they think that when a law gets in the way of their operations, they can ask for an exemption and it will be granted?” Reimer said.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of former Gov. Jon Huntsman, is the publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.