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Wagging the dog

Published January 12, 2012 1:01 am

DRC ruling judges waste by its cover
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Abraham Lincoln once asked, "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?" His answer? "Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

The Utah Division of Radiation Control has ruled that the managers of the EnergySolutions landfill in Tooele County can call a tail a leg just because outdated federal regulations have not yet given it any other official label.

In a Tribune column last month, DRC Director Rusty Lundberg explained his division's decision to allow the company to store a mixture of higher-level wastes from the nation's nuclear power plants stirred into the kind of lower-level garbage EnergySolutions already has tons of. But the reason is not that the resulting blend is known to be safe, or safer, or safe enough.

No, the decision to allow EnergySolutions to receive as much as 40,000 cubic feet of blended waste before it files the necessary safety assessment plans is based on the incontrovertible — and meaningless — argument that the higher-level wastes going into the process were never labeled at all.

The reassuring cooing sounds that agency leaders made the other day at a public hearing did not — and should not — convince the many concerned citizens who were there to challenge the plan.

Because waste that will have had no classification goes into the transmogrification process in EnergySolutions' Tennessee blending facility, the DRC says, it does not technically change the waste stream from the allowed Class A into the forbidden Class B and C.

But that doesn't mean the stuff that comes out is safer than Class B and C.

Maybe the process is safe. Maybe it is no more dangerous than any of the waste already stored, as legal as dish soap, in the facility. But the argument that such safety can be assumed based on the logic that a component of the waste didn't have a label on it when it went into the factory, and thus won't change the characteristics of the mixture that comes out the other end, is far from reassuring.

This stuff is complicated. It's not — or, at least, not necessarily — the equivalent of mixing just the right quantities of gin and vermouth to conjure up the perfect martini.

These substances interact with each other and their surroundings. Whether the resulting mix is really scary, or barely worth getting worked up about, has not been firmly established in any appropriate forum.

Until we have a much firmer grasp of the subject, the state should make EnergySolutions do the full safety work-up before receiving any blended waste.




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