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Will Depleted Uranium Be Coming to Utah?

21 November 2013
Published in Energy
Written by  Kim Schuske
Yellowcake uranium Yellowcake uranium US Department of Energy

The US has a lot of depleted uranium that needs to be stored and EnergySolutions wants to get in on the action. Over the next few months, the Division of Radiation Control will be looking at a study on the safety of storing the low level radioactive waste, which may ultimately determine if depleted uranium comes to Utah.

The US has 700,000 metric tons of depleted uranium that needs to find a permanent resting place. The waste was generated as a byproduct during uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons and to produce the fuel used in nuclear power plants. EnergySolutions, the low-level radioactive storage facility in Clive, 65 miles west of Salt Lake City, may become one home for the waste, pending a decision from the state. But it's not an easy decision to make because depleted uranium is unlike other radioactive material stored in Clive, says Rusty Lundberg who is the Director of the Division of Radiation Control, which will oversee the decision making process.

"It has some unique characteristics that differs from other radioactive materials and wastes that they dispose of there," says Lundberg. "One of the most significant is that over a long period of time, depleted uranium and its decay products actually increase in radioactivity. Whereas the more normal process is that radioactive materials decay and continue to decay. So this makes this more unique and more important for our deliberate and more focused consideration and evaluation of this proposal."

Depleted uranium is only 60% as radioactive as natural uranium, but as it decays the byproducts are more radioactive and are also toxic in other ways. Thure Cerling is a professor of geology at the University of Utah.

"By itself, the depleted uranium is more dangerous as a toxin, than its radioactivity," says Cerling.

A large increase in radioactivity due to decay will not occur for a long time, peaking at 2.1 million years.

"Uranium, when it was taken out of the ground, may have been there for millions of years, so we know it can be in a configuration for millions of years," says Cerling. "And millions of years is the time scale that it will continue to be around."

To get a better handle on the health and safety risk that storage of the waste may pose to Utahns, the Utah Division of Radiation Control required EnergySolutions to complete a study, or performance assessment, that looks at many possible issues and scenarios that might threaten waste containment at their facility over the next 10,000 and more years. This includes the risk of ground water contamination, seismic activity, and the role plants, insects, and burrowing animals may have in compromising the waste containment structure. The embankment that EnergySolutions proposes to use to contain the waste is above ground. Current regulations only require that the embankment perform its function for a minimum of 500 years.

Utah is somewhat on it's own in figuring out how to regulate storage of depleted uranium since the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency has not put forward clear rules. Director Lundberg says state and federal regulators are all coming to the conclusion that a site-specific evaluation, like the one EnergySolutions has undertaken, will be critical.

"The intent is that, to look at each individual site taking into consideration its unique physical and location characteristics, not only now, but in the long term, and make that judgment, based upon that input and that information is it acceptable for disposal," explains Lundberg.

None of this comforts Park City resident Travis Bray.

"Any person who studies any aspect of storage knows there is no such thing as 100,000 year concrete, it doesn't exist, at some point storage facilities will break down," says Bray.

Bray went to an open house last week hosted by the Division of Radiation Control, which is hoping to engage the public on the storage issue. Bray says he came to the open house because after just moving to the state in September, he recently found out there was a possibility that depleted uranium would be stored in his new home. He isn't just a concerned citizen, but one with a PhD in chemistry from Auburn University. He studied how radioactive heavy metals, called actinides, could affect the environment around the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.

"I did four years of research modeling what's going to happen when Yucca broke down, what minerals will uptake actinides, the redox chemistry of these actinides in the environment, how are they going to move through," says Bray. "I mean, it's not a matter of if it's a matter of when," he adds.

Bray says he hopes people will still be living in the area thousands of years in the future and they will want to know what we did that might have compromised their environment.

Chris Sloan is a realtor in Tooele who also came to the open house. He supports EnergySolutions' plan and says the company is an important economic engine for the county.

"They support our youth, they support our business community. They employ a ton of our people, people that live and work in Toole County," says Sloan.

Sloan says he personally isn't worried about the long-term affects of storing depleted uranium near his community.

"If I'm going to live to be 61,050, then I may have some concerns," says Sloan. "Let me couch that by also saying that I'm also fairly certain that before it gets back to full strength, technology will also be evolving from the storage side. I have no problems sleeping at night knowing that the technology will advance over the time they are worried about the increased heat."

The Division of Radiation Control is expected to begin a technical analysis of the performance assessment soon, take public comments in July, and make a final decision at the end of next year.

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