Cold war legacies and new enrichment plants generate plenty of political heat
Utah is the center of another uranium waste debate and this time it is tailings from enrichment plants. Utah’s sole Democrat, already a fit to be tied over delays in cleaning up the Moab mill site, has joined forces with one of the nation’s leading anti-nuclear activists, also a Democrat in Congress. Their purpose is to attack the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) over the stringency of its regulation of depleted uranium tails from enrichment plants. For its part the NRC told the two congressmen ‘not so fast’ or words to that effect.
The Salt Lake City Tribune reports the NRC's comments come in an April 9 letter to Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Edward Markey, D-Mass. Both congressmen have questioned the NRC's March decision to regulate large quantities of depleted uranium as the least hazardous kind of low-level radioactive waste, known as Class A waste.
The NRC says classifying large amounts of depleted uranium as a more radioactive type of waste, without further study, would not provide additional protections to public health, safety or the environment.
Depleted uranium has a percentage of U-235 smaller than the 0.7 percent found in natural uranium. It is obtained from spent (used) fuel elements or as byproduct tails, or residues, from uranium isotope separation in uranium enrichment plants. It is currently classified as low-level waste which makes it relatively easy to dispose of in licensed sites in Idaho, Utah, and Texas.
What’s Markey really up to?
Matheson and Markey have told the NRC to turn over all e-mails, phone call logs, meeting notes, memoranda and analyses related to the depleted uranium decision. The usual intent of a request like this is to rip through the agency’s paper trail, try to find something at fault, and then condemn the entire proceeding as flawed.
Make no mistake here. Markey (right) is an ardent anti-nuclear activist. His motives most likely are focused on trying to make production of enriched uranium in the US much more difficult by ratcheting up the regulatory requirements for its disposal. With three huge uranium enrichment plants coming online by 2014, it is clear that Markey is targeting the nuclear industry’s fuel supply. His intent is to try to choke it off by making it too costly to dispose of waste products from these plants.
Billions of dollars in investment are at stake and so is CO2 emission free electricity from the nation's nuclear power plants. Currently, they get 50% of their fuel from blended down HEU from Russian nuclear weapons via the Megatons-to-Megawatts program. It ends in four years. Starting in 2013 more than three-quarters of the nuclear fuel for current and new nuclear plants will come from three new U.S. based uranium enrichment plants which will generate the depleted uranium as a waste stream that is at the heart of this controversy.
The NRC says not so fast
In response to Markey and Matheson’s demands for a reclassification of depleted uranium to a more stringent set of standards for disposal, the NRC has said basically it wasn’t ready to do so, and what’s more NRC Chairman Dale Klein wrote,
"In summary, the commission believes that, in the absence of comprehensive technical and legal analyses, changing the waste classification of [depleted uranium] would be premature, could have significant and unforeseeable consequences, and would not provide for more protection of public health and safety and the environment.”
The debate over how to classify large volumes of depleted uranium first came up in 2005 when Louisiana Energy Services applied for a license to build a $2 billion uranium enrichment facility near Eunice, New Mexico. Since then USEC has also received a license to build a $3.5 billion uranium enrichment plant in Ohio. Areva has applied for a license to build a $2.4 billion plant in Idaho.
Last March the NRC said it would look at the issue of how large volumes of depleted uranium are handled at disposal sites. The Salt Lake City Tribune reported that the NRC stressed in its letter it doesn’t intend to speed up the process of how or whether to change the current classification of depleted uranium from Class A waste. It stressed the real issue is the licensing process for each disposal site.
“Eventual changes to waste classification designations in the regulations must be analyzed in light of the total amount of depleted uranium being disposed of at any given site.”
The NRC said it consulted with state regulators in South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington on how they view depleted uranium to reach its decision. Klein said in his letter it is "highly unlikely" any disposal of large quantities of depleted uranium will occur before 2011. The NRC said it intends to have its staff hold public workshops and develop technical rules related to disposal of depleted uranium from enrichment plants.
It could be three-to-five years before the commission completes its work on revising the regulations. In the meantime, you can bet that Markey and Matheson will be working hard to change that schedule. Two of their points of leverage is that the NRC has an open seat and NRC chairman Klein, a republican appointee will step down from that leadership post under the new Obama administration.
In a speech in March to a waste management conference, NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko (right) said he was not happy with the current approach by the NRC to regulation of depleted uranium. Jaczko votes most frequently with positions favored by anti-nuclear groups and once worked for Markey. He is being promoted by green groups to be appointed as the next chairman of the NRC. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings so watch this space.
Moab tailings get stimulus money
The Department of Energy will spend $108 million in economic stimulus money to speed up removal of 16 million tons of radioactive uranium mill tailings on the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said the funding commitment shows that the government is working to meet a 2019 cleanup deadline. Before the stimulus money was allocated, DOE had said the cleanup would not be finished before 2028. The total cost of the cleanup is estimated at $1 billion.
The money will remove an extra 2 million tons of tailings by 2011. The funds will pay for more rail cars and more rail shipments from the former Atlas Mineral Corp. site near Moab to a disposal site about 30 miles away. (see map below)
The Atlas Minerals Corp. bought the mill in 1962. It closed in 1984 but left behind the tailings behind on the banks of the Colorado River. The waste is part of a Cold War legacy in Moab, where uranium was mined during the 1950s.
Matheson and other lawmakers have worked to insure the massive waste piles would be moved away from the river's banks, rather than capped in place. The final environmental impact decision adopting that action was issued in 2005.
Matheson said in a statement.
"There is overwhelming scientific evidence that this site is unstable and that the contamination already migrating under the river towards the town of Moab could, with one major flood event, be dumped into the Colorado (River),"
The river is a source of drinking water for 50 million people, including residents of Arizona, California and Nevada.