Sixty-five years ago, the American Southwest was at the beginning of a uranium boom that left lasting scars on the landscape and the population—men lost to deadly jobs in the uranium mines and mills. Today, the byproducts of that boom, 700,000 tons of waste depleted uranium, are in search of a final resting place.
In 2009, the US Department of Energy (DOE) approached Energy Solutions (the company behind the arena name) with a proposition: to import 5,400 cylinders of depleted uranium from South Carolina’s Savannah River Site (SRS) to be buried in Energy Solutions’ low-level nuclear waste repository in Clive, Utah, just 65 miles west of Salt Lake City.
The DOE was (and still is) in the process of cleaning up the Savannah River Site. For more than 50 years it had been the main source of uranium for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors in the US. They needed a cheap place to dispose of a lot of surplus depleted uranium.
Energy Solutions received the first of three planned trainloads in 2009 without the explicit permission of the State of Utah. The DOE and Energy Solutions had conveniently assumed that depleted uranium was no different than the other low-level nuclear wastes that have been buried at the Clive site—wastes that decay over time, thus becoming even lower-level nuclear wastes.
Utah Governor Herbert stopped the shipments after the first trainload of waste arrived, temporarily delaying the receipt of any more depleted uranium until Energy Solutions and the State Division of Radiation Control could show such disposal was safe.
In the six years since, Energy Solutions has repeatedly misjudged, underestimated and ignored the dangers of disposing depleted uranium at Clive. Radiation Control (a division of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, will decide what happens next.
Depleted uranium is uranium with all the “good” parts taken out. It’s depleted. But it’s still uranium and it’s still radioactive. And unlike other radioactive wastes, it gets hotter with time, making it more radioactive over time. The deposit will qualify for Class B waste in about 61,000 years, and Class C waste (hottest level) in about 266,000 years.
Burial procedures are much more stringent for hotter wastes, for a number of good reasons.
The reason to properly dispose of nuclear waste is to prevent toxic releases. That can mean for a period of tens of thousands of years, up to millions of years. Class C waste, the hottest (most radioactive), must be buried thousands of feet underground in geologically stable formations, usually salt, that will prevent tampering. Class B waste, similarly, must be buried deep enough to prevent tampering. Class A wastes, on the other hand, because they are less radioactive, can be disposed of in above-ground tumuli that look like the temples of the Sun and Moon in Mexico City. The Colorado Plateau is dotted with these gravel-covered tombs of uranium mills similar to the tombs at Clive.
The primary concern is anything that might disturb the repository, from burrowing animals like badgers and ground squirrels to metal scavengers and the actions of wind, rain and the inevitable return of Lake Bonneville.
Burrowing animals can destroy the radon gas barrier. Future scavengers could open the tumuli to the wind which would spread depleted uranium dust. When Lake Bonneville returns in 10,000 or 20,000 years, the above-ground nuclear tumuli will be scoured by waves down to ground level.
Energy Solutions’ solution for the problem of radon leakage in middle time (10,000 years) is essentially that a sand dune from the Great Salt Lake desert will wander over to the tumuli and park itself for eternity.
The only warning of the nuclear briar patch will be the corroded husks of tens of thousands of barrels, dumpsters and cylinders. Intruders, as posited in Energy Solutions’ plan/ scenario, are limited to ranchers. No mention is made of yahoos with metal detectors. Although there is so much radiologically contaminated metal in the Clive tomb that metal detectors will be unnecessary.
Which brings up the topic of “loss of institutional control,” a euphemism for the time when Energy Solutions has gone bankrupt or been sold off in pieces and everybody else has forgotten what their grandfather helped bury out there. Energy Solutions has no agreement with the state of Utah or the feds for eventual transfer of the facility to state or federal ownership.
Depleted uranium is classified as low-level nuclear waste—the result of bureaucratic inertia. In the euphoria of “too-cheap-to-meter” nuclear power, there was no conception of “waste” products even as the “stock” of depleted uranium grew to something north of 700,000 tons. No thought was given to disposal. As recent as the early 2000s, the DOE was still looking for a “use” for depleted uranium. The only significant use was as “kinetic penetrators” used in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo where a couple of hundred tons were used to destroy tanks and fortifications. One possible cause of Gulf War Syndrome is the depleted uranium dust spread around when a spear-shaped depleted uranium shell would hit a hard place.
In 2001, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s position was this: “The strategy for the long-term management of depleted uranium is based on the consideration that depleted uranium is a valuable material, which may have various applications, and is not considered a waste. It is not envisaged that final disposition of the depleted uranium will be necessary within the next 70-100 years while nuclear generation of electricity continues.”
That was written before Fukushima.
But wait! There’s more
The 5,400 cylinders of waste from Savannah River are just the tip of the iceberg. The DOE’s uranium enrichment plants in Paducah, Kentucky and Portsmouth, Ohio have 10 times that many cylinders of depleted uranium to dispose of. The citizens of Kentucky and Ohio refuse to allow it to be buried in their back yard.
If Utah politicians and bureaucrats say yes to taking the radioactive suppository from Savannah River, the DOE would also like us to become keepers of the 700,000 tons of depleted uranium stored at Paducah, Kentucky and Portsmouth Ohio as well.
The nuclear bureaucrats in Washington need to dispose of the nuclear waste. The cleanup of our nation’s nuclear waste has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars and the end is not in sight. Energy Solutions would love to be on the receiving end of some of the nuclear waste disposal gravy train.
Some time ago, I ventured the opinion that Tooele County’s most profitable export was empty waste containers. I could have been writing about Tooele’s share of the nation’s “supply” of nerve gas, which was finally destroyed in 2012. I might have been writing about the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage site in Skull Valley, in 1998 or the shenanigans of Energy Solutions’ corporate grandaddy, Envirocare’s founder, Khosrow Semnani.
In 1997, Semnani was fined $100,000 for helping Utah’s Division of Radiation Control director, Larry B. Anderson, prepare false tax returns on $600,000 in cash, gifts and gold, which Anderson received from Semnani. Semnani alleged that he was extorted by Anderson. Nevertheless, the DOE requested that Semnani step down as head of Envirocare which he then sold to Steve Creamer in 2004.
Ever since, the political arena around the Clive site has been awash in money. Envirocare and Semnani routinely bought off most of the legislature with campaign contributions. Energy Solutions and Steve Creamer continue the tradition with political contributions of $695,370 over the last five years.
Which is to say, don’t expect our legislature to save us from this.
The upshot is that there is no safe way to safely dispose of depleted uranium at the Clive site.
The real issue is: Is it safe to bring all that uranium back and bury it in Utah’s West Desert? That should be a public health question, not a political question. But in a state where a majority of the population profess to believe that Jesus will be back soon, certainly before a huge pile of nuclear waste gets really stinky, it’s a theological question.
We do not have to bury this waste immediately. Energy Solutions and its stockholders, however, need to bury this waste immediately, or at least within the next couple of financial quarters. At that point, the stock will spike and the current owners can cash in their chips.
Let’s speak up now and create a different outcome.
John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.