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Bowing to an industry request, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and state environmental regulators have put off public comment on EnergySolutions' proposal to bury much of the nation's depleted uranium stockpile in Tooele County.
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced Thursday the 45-day public comment period that started Monday will be cut off and two public hearings scheduled for May 6 and 7 will be "information-only."
The changes are supposed to give EnergySolutions' executives more time to respond to a 200-page state safety report, which raised questions about the company's ability to safely store up to 700,000 tons of radioactive material that gets hotter over time.
At his monthly televised news conference Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert said he wants the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to weigh in, determining once and for all if depleted uranium is hotter than the Class A waste EnergySolutions currently is allowed to bury.
"If it is hotter than Class A waste, we don't want to have it," the governor said. "I have a hunch it's hotter than Class A waste and should be reclassified as something else.
"I expect the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to follow up on that and make their decision," he added. "Until that happens, I'm not comfortable having depleted uranium in Utah."
The state's two-volume report, released Monday, identified several gaps in the Salt Lake City-based nuclear-waste processor's documentation that is supposed to show its Clive landfill in Tooele County can safely handle the waste, a byproduct of the uranium-enrichment process, for thousands of years into the future. The low-level radioactive waste becomes more dangerous as time goes on, peaking at 2 million years in the future.
The U.S. Department of Energy is looking for a permanent repository for its vast stockpile of depleted uranium, stored in old drums and cylinders at federal sites in Kentucky, South Carolina and Ohio. EnergySolutions executives say they plan to take up to half the nation's depleted uranium, but the 80-acre cell prepared at Clive can hold the entire 700,000-ton stockpile.
EnergySolutions insisted a delay was in order to avoid "misleading" the public by fielding comments on an unfinished document. But earlier this week, the Utah Radiation Control Board chastised EnergySolutions executive Daniel Shrum and argued granting his request would erode public confidence in DEQ.
The company has been pushing its plans to landfill depleted uranium for 10 years. A consultant hired by the state was not satisfied with EnergySolutions' answers to 194 questions raised in three sessions last year.
DEQ's safety report outlines seven conditions EnergySolutions must meet before the state signs off on the plan. The feds must take over the Clive cell and agree to never upgrade depleted uranium's classification to Class B or C waste, which state law bars from being disposed of in Utah.
"Science really ought to guide us," Herbert said Thursday. "I'm sure we have the capability to store it. … The question is: Should we do it, and is it permitted under the law?"
At Tuesday's radiation board meeting, Shrum chalked up the concerns raised in the safety report as minor differences of opinion with DEQ's technical experts. He claimed EnergySolutions can resolve the issues in 60 days, even though the DEQ consultant had sought clarifications for much of the past year.
"It is imperative that the formal administrative public comment process be as meaningful as possible," the Department of Environmental Quality said in a statement Thursday. "To accomplish this, DEQ will delay formal public comment and allow EnergySolutions additional time to address important components not addressed or resolved in the draft Safety Evaluation Report (SER) released on Monday."
Environmentalists were disappointed with the decision announced by DEQ Executive Director Amanda Smith in consultation with Herbert's office.
HEAL Utah Executive Director Matt Pacenza said the company has had plenty of time to respond to the state's questions.
"Giving EnergySolutions more time won't offer Utahns any more solace [than] nuclear waste that presents a potent threat for millions of years can be stored safely in a mound in the desert," Pacenza said.
"They can take all the time they want to put lipstick on this particular radioactive pig," he added. "But Utahns aren't dumb. We know Depleted Uranium doesn't belong here."
HEAL Utah, which is opposed to allowing the waste to be buried in a shallow landfill 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, contends DEQ's chief concerns are unresolvable because there is no honest way to determine whether the Clive cell will remain intact in 2 million years, when the material reaches peak radioactivity.
"DU is radioactive effectively forever," said geologist Steve Nelson, a HEAL member and former radiation board member. "It has a half life (4.5 billion years) that approximates the age of the Earth. Unlike most low-level waste, DU will never, ever go away."