Commentary: Utah’s decision on radioactive waste is about values as well as science

(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.

On Thursday, the Utah Waste Management and Radiation Control Board will vote on a request by EnergySolutions that could start yet another chapter in Utah’s long and troubled history of exposure to radioactivity. A decision about allowing a dangerous form of nuclear waste, known as depleted uranium, or DU, into the state. A decision that will affect our grandchildren and beyond, for centuries to come.

There are more than 800,000 metric tons of this radioactive waste stockpiled around the United States by the Department of Energy. An additional 10,000 tons of it is stockpiled by the Department of Defense in a metallic form. This metallic DU was previously used by the military for bullets and armor because it is even more dense than lead. But is increasingly recognized internationally as being too hazardous even for military use.

Because of the potential serious and long-term hazards of allowing this waste into Utah, the Department of Environmental Quality has been performing a very meticulous technical analysis of the suitability of the EnergySolutions disposal site, 50 miles west of Grantsville, to store this unique and dangerous waste safely. Now, EnergySolutions is asking the state to ignore all of that work and give the company an exemption to bring the metallic waste to Utah. This decision will set a precedent that opens the door for the rest of DOE waste — almost a million tons that will become highly toxic for millions of years.

The discussions about DU at the recent board meetings have been focused on science — like what happens when the storage containers rust away, or whether the waste could eventually find its way into aquifers, animal burrows or plant roots — and policy — such as whether the board’s decision-making process is consistent with federal guidelines, or who will be responsible for the site after EnergySolutions goes out of business.

While it is good that these discussions have focused on science and policy, this decision is also about values. Should one company’s desire for a short-term windfall outweigh our responsibility to future generations? Why should Utah accept this waste when we’ve never used the nuclear power that caused most of it to be generated in the first place?

Does the Great Salt Lake desert have intrinsic value as a wildlife refuge, open space and a possible future habitable land bank? Or is the value of that land measured primarily in immediate private profit or tax revenue?

Does Utah want to be known as the nation’s nuclear waste dump or as a state that promotes its wild and scenic places and carefully preserves the cleanest and best use of them?

The board members, five of whom come from the very industries they are charged to regulate, are appointed as representatives of the public and should vote on what’s best for us and our descendants, not on what’s best for their employers or their industries. And there is nothing in the board’s charter that instructs it to limit its stewardship for safeguarding the public’s health to one decade or one century or 10.

Depleted uranium is an economic Trojan horse for Utah. It may offer a few jobs and some tax revenue, but once we let it in, it will become a burden to our children. And theirs. Forever.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams, M.D., MPH, is the executive director of HEAL Utah.