Depleted uranium waste becomes dangerous over the course of eternity, but its metallic form has many uses in military and aviation applications because of the material’s extreme density that makes it great for shields and penetrating projectile points.
Surplus munitions, tipped with depleted uranium and stockpiled in places like Utah’s Tooele Army Depot, await permanent disposal, and radioactive-waste handler EnergySolutions is eager to accept it at its landfill in Clive, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. But first it must secure an “emergency” exemption to Utah’s long-standing moratorium on accepting any more than a single metric ton of depleted uranium, or DU, a waste product from the uranium-enrichment process.
“We have shown the 1-ton limit is baseless, and we can accept more than that at our facility. It has been analyzed over and over again with the latest science,” EnergySolutions engineer Tim Orton told the Utah Waste Management and Radiation Control Board on Thursday. “We want it evaluated on a technical basis, not a political basis.”
The board is accepting comment until Oct. 6 before ruling on the firm’s request.
EnergySolutions is not supposed to take DU, 800,000 tons of which the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has stockpiled around the nation in rusting casks, until state regulators complete a “performance assessment” of EnergySolution’s embankment in Tooele County. It is currently certified to accept the least-dangerous class A radioactive waste. That study has been underway for seven years and is nearing completion.
Environmental health activists reject EnergySolutions’ assertion it can safely dispose of the munitions and insist the assessment be completed before any more DU is interred at Clive.
“Because it’s a business opportunity for EnergySolutions does not make it an emergency. A business decision does not preclude the authority of those regulations,” Jessica Reimer, a policy associate with HEAL Utah, told the board. “There’s no rush on this other than the [Department of Defense’s] timeline.”
By happenstance, the waste board Thursday granted another EnergySolutions variance request, one allowing it to accept up to 100 tons of incinerator ash contaminated with toxic dioxins and furans.
“We don’t see why [the DU] process should be pre-empted,” Reimer said. “There’s a reason this process has been going on for seven years. There are questions that need to be answered.”
The military can dispose of the munitions at a West Texas dump that is already licensed for DU. Orton said the shipments would total 2,668 cubic yards over four years, which would barely make a dent in EnergySolutions’ 8.7 million-cubic-yard cell. About 40 percent would come from the Tooele stockpile and the rest from Indiana’s Crane Army Ammunition Activity.
The military plans to disassemble 7 million 30 mm rounds and segregate the DU for disposal. None of the explosive components would come to Clive.
“It’s less radioactive than the uranium found in the ground," Orton said, “because the radioactive parts have been taken out.”
He argued the metallic DU, used in munitions, is more stable and less dangerous in the short-term than the granular oxide form the DOE is looking to bury.
But the two forms’ radiological profiles are the same, growing in radioactivity for 2 million years. It’s not particularly dangerous now, but it will be in about 10,000 years and remain so for billions of years.
The performance assessment is investigating whether the Clive pit, once it’s encapsulated with impervious layers, can safeguard the waste into “deep time.” Already 49,000 tons of DU is held there.
“If the 800,000 tons had never been put on the table, we would never have the moratorium and we would not be here today because it would be business as usual,” Orton said. “This is a small amount for our facility, less than 1 percent of what we receive.”
Most of Tooele County’s 70,000 residents support EnergySolutions’ DU plans, according to board member Shawn Milne, a Tooele County commissioner.
“They are passionately territorial about the success of EnergySolutions,” he said. “People take it as a slight that they would purposely ruin their own community.”
Noting the Tooele munitions are sitting on top of his town’s water supply, Milne said he is more fearful of leaving them where they are than disposing of them 50 miles away in Clive.
HEAL Executive Director Scott Williams stressed his group is not challenging EnergySolutions’ competence and commitment to safety. The group just wants the state to assure the public that the Clive pit can contain DU tens of thousands of years into the future, when it poses a real danger.
“It needs to be assessed like high-level nuclear waste,” Williams said. “We believe it belongs in deep geological disposal, not surface disposal.”