Environmental activists are petitioning Gov. Gary Herbert to pull out his rarely used veto pen and strike down a bill backed by a nuclear waste services company that wants to store depleted uranium in Utah.

Already approved by both sides of the Utah Legislature, the bill is poised to become law unless Herbert decides to act. And advocates say if it’s allowed to stand, the legislation will open the way for Utah-based EnergySolutions to import radioactive material that would get more and more hazardous over time.

“Depleted uranium does not become inert in 100 years. It does not become inert in 500 years. Depleted uranium grows in radioactivity for millennia, contaminating its storage site eternally,” Jessica Reimer, a policy associate with HEAL Utah, said Friday. “Allowing depleted uranium to be stored at EnergySolutions’ Clive facility means that the state is creating a radioactive site forever.”

Reimer spoke during a news conference hosted by HEAL Utah and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club to urge Herbert’s veto.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The bill alone wouldn’t enable EnergySolutions to store depleted uranium, but the proposal does deal with the type of material permitted into the state. Waste is assigned a classification based on its radioactivity, and Utah currently limits its intake to the least-hazardous Class A material. The state has a ban on the more radioactive B and C classes of waste.

Depleted uranium, a byproduct of the uranium-enrichment process, falls into the Class A category initially, but becomes hotter as it decays, with peak radioactivity coming after about a million or two million years. Eventually, it transforms into a material that exceeds Class C standards, Reimer said.

However, HB220, sponsored by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, specifies that waste is classified at the time of acceptance, meaning that depleted uranium would be put into the acceptable Class A category.

While the governor has conveyed his reservations about the proposal, recent changes to the legislation might be sufficient to ward off a veto.

“As with all legislation, we will scrutinize the bill before signing, but the governor believes that his major concerns have been addressed,” Paul Edwards, Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, said in a prepared statement.

The final bill is an improvement on the version initially introduced to the Legislature, Reimer acknowledges.

Now, before a facility can harbor depleted uranium, it must pass a performance assessment that considers public health and safety. And the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) must accept eternal management of the “federal cell” where the waste is stockpiled and take custody of the toxic material should EnergySolutions go out of business in coming millennia.

During floor discussion this week, Utah senators who supported the bill said they trust state regulators to make a fact-based determination about whether it’s safe to dispose of depleted uranium in Tooele County.

“I believe wholeheartedly that we’re basing this decision in science and not emotion and that this depleted uranium can be stored safely at the Clive facility,” Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said.

The Utah House passed the bill first, and the Senate this week followed suit by approving it 23-6, with most Democrats and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, opposing it. Sen. Gene Davis of Salt Lake City was the only Democrat in either chamber to support the measure.

In explaining his decision, Davis said he’d researched the issue extensively to make sure he wasn’t casting a vote based in emotion or knee-jerk impulse.

“I wanted to make sure this was not a NIMBY issue,” he said. “This is not going to happen tomorrow. There’s a lot of science and approvals that need to go through.”

EnergySolutions is one of the biggest campaign donors in state legislative races, and all but two of the 38 sitting lawmakers who received campaign contributions from the company voted for the bill. The two who took money but voted against HB220 were Republican Reps. Jim Dunnigan, of Taylorsville, and Jon Hawkins, of Pleasant Grove.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is nearing completion of a roughly eight-year study of the Clive site in Tooele, an assessment launched after EnergySolutions signaled interest in taking depleted uranium off the DOE’s hands. The federal agency has stockpiled 800,000 metric tons of the material around the nation.

Environmental advocates say the safest place for the material is deep underground, a type of storage not possible at the Tooele County landfill.

An EnergySolutions representative testified to a Senate panel that the company digs a 10-foot pit for waste storage at the Clive facility but can’t go much deeper without hitting groundwater. The depleted uranium would be stored below-grade as a precaution in case Lake Bonneville one day returns to cover the site, the company representative said.

During Friday’s press conference, a geology professor from Brigham Young University said it’s only a matter of time before the lake waters flood the Clive site and the depleted uranium and associated substances leach out.

“I don’t understand why anyone with foreknowledge would place an enormous volume of this material in a place where you know it’s — maybe not in my lifetime, maybe not in my children’s or grandchildren’s lifetime — but eventually is going to get out and be dispersed into the environment,” the professor, Steve Nelson, said, clarifying that he was not speaking for the university.