Nuclear waste shipments to Nevada never passed through Utah, Gov. Herbert says

(Jeff Chatlosh | The Morning News via AP file photo) A CSX Train with spent nuclear fuel passes through Florence, S.C., in 1994 on its way to Savannah River Site Weapons Complex near Aiken S.C. Environmental groups in Utah are raising concern about such shipments.

Worrisome shipments of mislabeled radioactive waste never passed through Utah before they arrived in Nevada, Gov. Gary Herbert assured concerned environmental groups through a letter on Tuesday.

He added that he and key state agencies are notified any time that “dangerous and highly sensitive radioactive wastes travels through Utah.” Another state official says that occurs once or twice a month, and emergency, transportation and public safety officials are also notified.

Environmental activists said the letter from Herbert was only a partial response to concerns they raised last week, and that it sidestepped other concerns about controversial plutonium shipments to Nevada and a request that Herbert join the governors of Nevada and New Mexico to strongly oppose moving spent nuclear fuel rods for storage in their states.

Nine Utah environmental groups raised that alarm after Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak had said the U.S. Department of Energy told him it sent 32 shipments of radioactive material incorrectly labeled as low-level waste into Nevada from Tennessee between 2013 and 2018.

He added he was initially told it included “reactive” material that can release large amounts of thermodynamic energy. Sisolak and Nevada’s two senators sent a letter calling such shipments “unconscionable.”

The nine Utah groups wrote Herbert worrying that “communities along the interstate highways and railroads in Utah were likely at risk from all these shipments,” and asked whether appropriate Utah authorities and first responders are notified in advance.

Herbert wrote on Tuesday “that none of the mislabeled material recently transported from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to the Nevada National Security Site passed through Utah at any point in its journey.”

The governor’s office referred questions about how he knew that to the state Department of Environmental Quality. Its spokeswoman, Donna Kemp Spangler, said some of its officials spoke with U.S. Department of Energy officials on Monday, who said the shipments never came through the Beehive State.

Rusty Lundberg, deputy director of the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, was one of the officials in that conversation. “It’s a matter of geography. Tennessee is south of our southern border” so shipments used Interstate 40 and never came through Utah, he explained.

About mislabeled shipments, Herbert wrote, “We expect the federal government and all agencies involved in the transport and packaging of nuclear waste to be exacting, accurate and truthful when labeling these materials.”

Herbert added that he feels the state is properly notified about nuclear waste and material shipments that do come through Utah.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during an interview on the final day of the legislative session at the Utah State Capitol.

“The U.S. Department of Energy informs Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality when dangerous and highly sensitive radioactive wastes travels through Utah. DEQ keeps me informed of all such shipments. The transport of such materials is confidential and maintaining that confidentiality is vital to our public safety and national security,” the governor wrote.

Lundberg said the state receives notification of such radioactive shipments through the state about once or twice a month.

He said other key agencies — such as transportation, emergency management and public safety — are also notified about the shipments and the routes in case the shipments are involved in an accident and added, “There has never been an accident involving these materials in Utah.”

Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah Sierra Club, said “what we saw was a really very incomplete answer” from the governor to concerns environmental groups raised.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah Sierra Club.

She noted they also complained that DOE earlier this year revealed it had quietly shipped a half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada last year despite the latter state’s protest. They also asked Herbert to join Nevada and New Mexico to protest storing spend nuclear rods in their states. She said he was silent on all that.

“We are just hopeful to hear more from the governor on these issues. They are really pressing public issues that we feel like he has an obligation to be vocal about,” she said.

Steve Erickson, an activist who volunteers with the Citizens Education Project, said that while the mislabeled radioactive waste didn’t come through Utah, “other shipments do all the time” and said the state needs to better explain how safety and security are protected.

Also about fighting shipment of spent nuclear fuel to the West, he said, “We need to hang with our neighbors or risk hanging separately with the consequences, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin.”