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The controversy over blended waste disposal at EnergySolutions has interesting parallels and differences with an issue that came before us when I was a new member of the Utah Radiation Control Board in the late 1990s. In this context, I offer an additional perspective.

Back then, uranium prices were a fraction of what they are now, so the White Mesa uranium mill near Blanding processed "alternate feed," or contaminated soils and sludges from out of state. There was nowhere near enough uranium in them to make a profit. However, the owner of the alternate feed (i.e., waste) paid the mill to take it.

Once material went through the mill, what came out on the other side was disposed of as "uranium mill tailings" and dumped into a pond where it is forever regulated as "byproduct," and the prior owner of the waste was rid of the problem.

At that time the state of Utah recognized this for what it was — "sham disposal" — and vigorously protested it as such. However, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission administrative law judge said there was no sham as long as the mill actually processed the material and attempted to recover uranium.

This was as if to say that there is no "sham" in disposing of an unwanted holiday fruitcake, as long as you run it through a mill. From a health perspective, alternate feed may not have posed a greater hazard than the remnants of conventional ore. From a policy perspective it created dual framework for waste disposal, and sham disposal at that.

Something similar is happening today with blended waste. Class B and C waste, more radioactive than the class A stuff that EnergySolutions now takes, is banned in Utah. To get around this, material that would be B or C waste, if it were brought to Utah, is mixed with class A waste in order to get a class A designation.

EnergySolutions can do this because the B and C waste isn't officially classified as such at this "point in the waste management system." These are the words of Rusty Lundberg, Utah's director of the Division of Radiation Control (Opinion, Dec. 17, 2011). And whereas the sham disposal of "alternate feed" may not have increased the hazard near Blanding, blending will certainly increase the radiation inventory at EnergySolutions' west desert facility.

We can all see through this. This is sham disposal of B and C waste enabled by a regulatory wordsmith.

Only this time the state isn't opposing sham disposal. Rather, its chief regulator is acting as the primary apologist. To add insult to injury, 40,000 cubic feet have been approved while the NRC revisits the issue of blending.

The Utah Radiation Control Board, Lundberg's advisory body, which "guides development of radiation control policy and rules in the state," issued a position statement in 2010 stating: "The Board is opposed to waste blending when the intent is to alter the waste classification for the purposes of disposal site access."

However, his contradiction of his board's intent does not seem to bother Lundberg.

The question now becomes, what will the governor and Legislature do? I'm not holding my breath.

Steve Nelson served on the Utah Radiation Control Board as member, chair and vice chair from 1998 to 2008. He resides in Orem.