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Utah Radiation Control Board members Tuesday pushed back against EnergySolutions' request to delay a public review of the company's plans to bury depleted uranium in Tooele County.
Board members told company executives they want to move forward with a public process that will culminate this summer with a decision of whether to accept the nation's 700,000-metric-ton stockpile of radioactive waste that is low-level now, but becomes increasingly hotter over the next 2 million years.
"This literally is of national interest, and we keep punting it down the road," said radiation board Chairman Peter Jenkins. "It is time to get additional opinions on it."
On Monday the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released a long-anticipated safety evaluation of EnergySolution's plan to bury the waste at its Clive landfill 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
And DEQ's technical contractor, Virginia-based SC&A, found EnergySolution's analysis outlined in a 900-page performance assessment lacking in eight specific areas.
In response, the company asked that a 45-day public comment period that started Monday be put on hold and two public hearings scheduled for next month be postponed indefinitely.
"EnergySolutions is concerned that holding public meetings on an incomplete Safety Evaluation Report may mislead the public as to the risks of depleted uranium disposal," Daniel Shrum, the company's vice president for regulatory affairs, wrote in a letter to Rusty Lundberg, director of the Division of Radiation Control.
At the radiation board's monthly meeting Tuesday, Lundberg said he and other DEQ bosses were considering the company's request and would respond soon.
But Jenkins responded on the spot.
"It would betray a certain level of public trust in the division to open a public comment period then close the comment period. A better approach would be to extend the public comment period," Jenkins said. "At some point, we have to get this out. This has been going on for years. Further delay serves no purpose.
"I don't understand what new information or new situation would come out of delaying this," he added.
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the enrichment process required to produce fissionable material for nuclear bombs and fuel. The nation's stockpile of the waste is currently stored at three federal sites, in Kentucky, Ohio and South Carolina.
EnergySolutions proposes burying most of the waste in an 80-acre, west desert landfill cell, covering 55-gallon barrels of the stuff with concrete, clay and rocks.
Meanwhile, 5,800 drums already have been shipped to Clive from the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River, S.C. site. After the state blocked further shipments, those barrels were placed in a metal warehouse in Clive.
EnergySolutions also has buried 49,000 tons of depleted uranium under previous disposal contracts.
After five years of study, EnergySolutions last year submitted its latest version of the performance assessment, a document intended to demonstrate the ability of the Clive landfill to safely contain the waste for thousands of years.
SC&A scrutinized it and repeatedly sought clarification from the company, posing 194 questions in three rounds of interrogatories last year.
The consultant was not satisfied with all the company's answers.
Eight technical issues remain unresolved, including questions about frost damage, infiltration, evaporation and erosion of the cell that would hold the depleted uranium, as well as how the waste could affect the environment in "deep time" tens of thousands of years from now.
"We thought we resolved these issues. They are minor and there are not very many of them," Shrum told the radiation board. "Our goal was to get these issues resolved, then send it out for public comment when there is a complete document.
"We preferred everything [be] answered before the public weighs in on it," he added. "I don't know how long it will take."
But board member Lindsey Nesbitt noted EnergySolutions has had plenty of time to address state regulators' concerns. The division's consultant repeatedly raised them last year.
And the environmental group HEAL Utah accused EnergySolutions of "stonewalling" the state by choosing not to answer the consultant's requests for more information.
"Do they really need this time when they've been granted so much time already?'' Nesbitt asked.