Lawmakers advance bill on radioactive waste; some fear that it paves the way for depleted uranium

A bill that could effectively reverse Utah’s 14-year-old ban on accepting class B and C radioactive waste cleared a legislative committee this week, raising concerns among environmentalists that lawmakers are trying to clear a path for depleted uranium to be disposed in the state’s West Desert.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said his HB220 is needed to square Utah regulations with anticipated revisions to federal standards from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The measure would require the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to base its approval of waste-acceptance proposals on “science, human health, environmental safety, unique site capabilities, geology and geography” as opposed to relying on an “antiquated” system of A, B, C waste classifications, the retired power company executive told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.

“It provides a greater focus on science and facility capabilities,” Albrecht said, “rather than a focus on an arbitrary classification system based on a generic facility model developed over 30 years ago.”

Under current law, Utah’s waste facilities, such as those operated by EnergySolutions, may accept nothing hotter than class A waste.

DEQ is nearing the end of a seven-year performance assessment of the ability of EnergySolutions' dump to safely store up to 700,000 tons of depleted uranium — material that is relatively harmless now but becomes increasingly more dangerous over thousands of years, far hotter than B or C waste.

The environmental group HEAL Utah argues HB220 could require regulators to consider depleted uranium as class A waste — ignoring its increasing toxicity — because the bill would require waste to be classified at the time of its acceptance.

“Classification of radioactive waste is not arbitrary. It is based on specific standards based on safety and exposure levels,” HEAL policy director Jessica Reimer said. “Class B waste is, on average, 20 times more radioactive than class A, and class C waste is, on average, 70 times more radioactive than class A.”

The Legislature passed the 2005 ban on class B and C radioactive waste with bipartisan support and the concurrence of Envirocare, the waste-handling company now known as EnergySolutions.

“This is a clear policy decision set by the Legislature that would become muddied by placing sole discretion in the hands of the director of [DEQ’s] Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, a political appointee,” Reimer said. “The issue is worth a larger transparent policy discussion and shouldn’t be subject to slowly chipping away at regulations put in place to protect public health and the environment.”

Casey Hill, EnergySolutions' lobbyist, said his client’s depleted-uranium proposal would still have to complete a rigorous review, expected to be completed sometime this year, regardless of HB220.

The bill “shifts to a more fact-based process that focuses on our unique situation here in Utah, our unique site capabilities, our unique concerns as a local population. All of those things go into a site-specific performance assessment,” Hill said. “It shifts the conversation from classification to one of safety, environmental health and capabilities of the facility.”

Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne, whose county hosts EnergySolutions' Clive site and other hazardous-waste repositories, endorsed the bill.

“We are proud of our history,” Milne said. “In Tooele County, we are good at a few things: sand and gravel extraction; mineral extraction; disposing safely of a lot of byproducts of our civilization. EnergySolutions does a very fine job of several of those.”

The heavier-than-lead waste the company seeks to accept comes from Department of Energy sites where uranium has been enriched to make fissile material to fuel reactors and weapons. Stored in aging casks in a granular form, depleted uranium is the byproduct of this process and has been used in military-grade projectiles that penetrate concrete and armor.

Albrecht’s bill was introduced on the heals of DEQ’s recent decision against EnergySolutions' request to accept old projectile tips the U.S. military has long stored at the Tooele Army Depot. That decision upset Milne and other elected officials.

“I find it ironic that it’s OK to have [surplus munitions made from depleted uranium] in our neighborhood [near Grantsville] but not to move it 50 or 60 miles farther into the West Desert,” said Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele. “It’s OK to have it closer to our homes, but not 50, 60 miles out in the desert, where there is no exposure for harm. It’s asinine.”

Before the 2018 Legislature, EnergySolutions ranked as the single largest donor to sitting lawmakers’ campaigns, pouring in more than $67,000. Legislators approved — and Gov. Gary Herbert signed — a measure granting the company a $1.7 million break on state regulatory fees.