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Five-hundred tons of uranium-contaminated soil from Japan is headed to Utah's southeastern desert.
That's good news for International Uranium Corp.'s White Mesa mill, which has not processed ore for six years.
But, for environmental activists, the shipment signals that the state has opened a Pandora's box, making Utah not just a national destination for radioactive discards but now a global one.
"It's the precedent," said Claire Geddes, pointing out that the state already has the nation's largest privately owned and operated low-level radioactive waste site and that a high-level storage facility also is planned. "This [Japanese waste] is a scenario for a nightmare to me."
Whether it is "ore" or "waste" is critical from the government's perspective. The state won't allow White Mesa to accept radioactive waste. And the federal government would have to approve a special permit for it.
But the 319 cubic yards of material from Japan is coming from an old mining site, said Harold Roberts, development vice president for Canadian-based International Uranium. That it is ore - and not contaminated tailings - has been confirmed by the company and by the Japan Atomic Agency, which is shipping it.
"People need to understand this is natural ore," he said.
Roberts explained the ore is being shipped to Everett, Wash., trucked to the White Mesa Mill south of Blanding and chemically processed to produce "yellowcake" uranium for commercial nuclear plants. Unusable material will go into disposal ponds behind the plant.
But reports from Japan often describe the contaminated soil as waste headed to Utah for disposal. A Japanese anti-nuclear group issued a news release last week suggesting the contaminated soil was waste from a defunct uranium mill in Yurihama.
In August, The Japan Times reported that 319 cubic yards of radioactive soil, the leftovers of test drilling, was headed to the United States for processing and disposal under a $5.8 million contract. The local community had been pushing since 1988 for removal of the dirt because of its "relatively high surface radiation level," the newspaper said.
Janice Owens, an import-export licensing agent for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted that if the material was waste instead of ore, International Uranium would have needed a special license from her office. But, since it's ore, International Uranium's general license will cover the shipment and her agency will not monitor the process.
Radioactive ore from Australia and Canada often comes into the United States without special permits, Owens said.
Dianne Nielson, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the state did not require any additional review either, since the company has a blanket state license for processing uranium ore.
"We're just as committed as before that this [White Mesa] facility is used as a uranium mill and not as a disposal site," she said.
Years ago, when the state was petitioning federal regulators to assume oversight of the mill, Nielson referred to the mill's recycling operations as "sham disposal."
At that time, and anytime the mill has been in operation since 1999, International Uranium relied on contaminated cleanup waste from around the United States and Canada as the feed for the mill. With the price of uranium at $7 per pound, that was the only way the mill could afford to operate. Now, with prices over $31 a pound and headed up, the company can profitably process ore once more.
Roberts said the company has not decided when to begin another ore run. International Uranium may soon be extracting ore from its own holdings in Utah, Colorado and Arizona, he said.
None of this calms the company's opponents in Utah.
After the mill removes the uranium concentrate, contaminated tailings remain. They are moved to ponds, where they are subject to mining waste laws rather than the stricter radioactive waste disposal laws.
Another mill, in Canon City, Colo., is the only other working uranium plant in the United States. The Canon City facility is a federal Superfund hazardous waste cleanup site.
Opponents insist the tailings are "waste" no matter what the regulatory definitions might be.
The Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, an anti-nuke group, said the shipment "goes against the principle of not dumping radioactive waste in another country."
Geddes said international trade laws will make it tough to impossible for Utahns to get control of the radioactive material coming into the state - at the White Mesa plant, at the mile-square Envirocare of Utah facility in Tooele County and at the proposed high-level storage site planned for Skull Valley, also in Tooele County.
"There are plenty of people who want to use Utah as a dump," she said.
"Once you have set up a facility [in your state] there's nothing you can do to stop it."
Envirocare of Utah says it has never imported radioactive waste from outside the United States.
Steve Erickson, a longtime critic of the White Mesa mill, called the Japanese shipment "rather disturbing." He complained that there has been no public notification about it.
"Where are the Utah regulators on this? That's a good question," he said. "Were they just looking the other way?"