SALT LAKE CITY - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is rushing to meet an April 2 deadline to turn over stacks of internal documents that could shed light on why it recently decided to classify large quantities of depleted uranium as the least hazardous type of low-level radioactive waste.
The NRC's decision, which still must undergo a rule-making process that could take up to two years, would open the door for federal facilities and companies around the country to dispose of more than 1 million tons of depleted uranium in Utah and Texas.
Democratic Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who is chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the NRC, have demanded the documents because they believe the agency's March 18 decision disregards the risk depleted uranium poses to public health and safety.
They called the NRC's decision an "arbitrary and capricious mischaracterization" of the waste.
NRC spokesman David McIntyre said it's possible the guidelines could still change.
"It's not a closed door at all. This is the direction that the commission told the staff to take, and part of that is to develop this guidance and to hold a public workshop promptly to get public input," he said. "The commission itself will be looking at this at least twice more."
Depleted uranium is unique in that unlike other waste, it becomes more radioactive over time, leading to criticism from environmental groups that the NRC is downplaying the long-term risks of radiological exposure.
"It's kind of like saying someone isn't a drunk driver because he passed a breathalyzer test before he started drinking," said Christopher Thomas, public policy director for the nuclear waste watchdog group Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.
Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions Inc. operates the only low-level radioactive waste dump available to 36 states. It's only authorized to take Class A waste, traditionally considered the least hazardous.
Waste Control Specialists LLC also wants to dispose of low-level radioactive waste in Andrews County, Texas, a few miles from the southeastern New Mexico border.
Both companies have expressed interest in disposing of depleted uranium, which is a uranium enrichment byproduct. About 740,000 tons of depleted uranium is currently being stockpiled at Department of Energy sites at Paducah, Ky.; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Licenses for enrichment plants are also being sought in Piketon, Ohio; Areva, Idaho; and Wilmington, N.C.
By default, depleted uranium has long been considered Class A waste by the NRC and small amounts of it have been accepted in Utah. That's because the NRC never specifically categorized depleted uranium when it developed its guidelines in the early 1980s - a result that so little needed to be disposed of at the time.
The issue of whether large volumes of depleted uranium should still be classified as Class A waste arose when a consortium of primarily European companies that own Louisiana Energy Services applied for a license in 2005 to open a uranium enrichment facility near Eunice, New Mexico, in the southeastern part of the state.
NRC staff proposed, and commissioners approved last week, continuing to classify depleted uranium as Class A waste, but they also required additional safeguards for its disposal in an acknowledgment that it is different from other Class A waste.
Environmental groups contend the 3-1 ruling by the NRC's Republican-controlled commission is an attempt to appease corporate interests searching for the least expensive option possible to dispose of the waste.
"The reason for all these shenanigans, in my opinion, is they've already granted a license saying you can dispose of depleted uranium in shallow landfill areas," Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md., said of the New Mexico site.
Among the documents Matheson and Markey are requesting are all e-mails, phone call logs, meeting notes, memoranda and analyses related to the depleted uranium decision, including any records related to EnergySolutions.
"We're trying to find out the basis for this decision. It seems to be an odd course to take," Matheson said in a telephone interview from Washington.
McIntyre said NRC staff are working tirelessly to track down all of the information requested.
"We want to accommodate their request to the fullest extent," he said.
Matheson and Markey's letter questioned how the NRC could make the ruling when in the 1980s it was considering higher classification.
"The depleted uranium waste stream which will flow from commercial uranium enrichment facilities is expected to be ... ten times greater than what the commission believed was safe," the letter says.
What effect turning over the documents will have is unclear. It is possible, although unlikely, that the NRC could reverse course on its decision if Matheson and Markey continue to pressure them.
The congressmen could also ask President Barack Obama to appoint new commissioners to the NRC to give it a Democratic majority. One seat on the five member commission is already vacant and a Republican member's term is set to expire July 1. One Democrat already sits on the NRC.