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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has scrapped its search for temporary storage for two shipments of depleted uranium and is now looking for another place to bury the low-level radioactive waste permanently.

Spokeswoman Jen Stutsman said her agency still wants "safe and cost-effective disposition" of depleted uranium (DU) from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, but the agency hasn't settled on a path forward after delays that began about a year ago when Gov. Gary Herbert asked the DOE to stop sending the Savannah River waste here after the first of three shipments had already rolled into Utah.

About a year ago, a 5,400-drum shipment of DU from the Savannah River cleanup arrived at the EnergySolutions. landfill, where it sits in a cell, uncovered. Herbert persuaded the DOE to stop two more shipments totaling 9,400 drums and to delay permanent disposal of the waste already in Utah until the state updates its regulations to ensure that the Tooele County site is suitable for large quantities of DU.

This type of low-level radioactive waste, though it meets state standards now, presents a special problem for regulators because it gets increasingly hazardous for around 1 million years, and large quantities could potentially exceed state hazard allowances. Separate from the Savannah River waste, the company already has buried 49,000 tons of DU from past disposal contracts.

Earlier this month, EnergySolutions asked for a deadline extension to develop an engineering report that examines the site's suitability for long-term disposal. While the company originally planned to have its report done by the end of the year, it now wants the deadline moved to the end of February.

Stutsman noted that the Utah Division of Radiation Control verified in April that the Savannah River DU does contains Class A low-level waste that is permitted in Utah. But she restated her agency's position to respect the state's request for more review time.

"The waste currently at [the EnergySolutions site] will remain in storage until the Utah Radiation Control Board completes its ongoing rulemaking efforts," she said, "and the regulators receive and review a site-specific performance assessment for the [Utah] facility to demonstrate the long-term safety of depleted uranium."

Meanwhile, the delay has prompted the DOE to look for a quicker solution for the drums remaining in Savannah River.

One option was to send it to Nevada, where the federal government operates the National Security Site, or to a commercial site in Texas. But the DOE is under pressure to complete the waste disposal next year.

"The department on Nov. 16 cancelled its request for proposals for interim off-site storage of depleted uranium that remains at Savannah River, she said in an e-mail, "and [the agency] will now move forward considering options for permanent disposal that will deliver the best value for U.S. taxpayers."

Last spring, a Savannah River official estimated the delay in DU disposal could cost the DOE as much as $12 million — a big increase in a project originally projected to cost $22 million. Even storing the waste at the South Carolina site was expected to cost up to $4 million, officials said in May.

With the decision to scrap the temporary storage idea, the DOE is looking once again at permanent disposal, and only a few sites nationwide are suited for the waste. And, if EnergySolutions is able to demonstrate that its site can contain DU hazards and withstand floods and other long-term challenges, it could potentially wind up in Utah after all.

Said Stutsman, "No final decision has been made regarding a long-term disposal site." She added that her agency hopes to make a decision in early 2011.

What's next

P The U.S. Department of Energy originally granted a $2.6 million contract to EnergySolutions Inc. to permanently bury 19,800 drums of depleted uranium at the Utah company's Tooele County landfill for low-level radioactive waste. But, with one shipment already in storage at EnergySolutions at Gov. Gary Herbert's request, the agency is rethinking a proposal to store the remaining two shipments while the state continues to study the site's suitability for more depleted uranium.