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The Salt Lake Tribune

Uranium Bonfire: Air Force Incinerated Radioactive Waste

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Editorial

Officials at Hill Air Force Base inadvertently orchestrated a uranium bonfire in a waste incinerator at Layton.

Over the past eight months, Hill sent a nine-ton batch of obsolete military hardware to the burn plant, unaware that the items contained "trace" amounts of depleted uranium. And when you're burning nine tons of waste, "trace" amounts add up. All told, five pounds of uranium went up in smoke.

The Weapons System Program Office at Hill is at fault. The documents spelling out the contents of the materials to be burned, according to a Hill press release, "were not readily accessible." So, instead of taking the time to track down the paperwork, officials callously threw it on the fire, and Utahns be damned.

A Hill public affairs officer said that standard safety procedures "were followed." But if standard operating procedures somehow allow uranium to be incinerated, those procedures have to change.

And the Utah Department of Environmental Quality could help keep residents safe by requiring that the Wasatch Integrated Waste Management District install radiation monitors at the burn plant to screen all incoming military waste.

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And a federal probe, not a military probe, is in order. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should conduct thorough investigations.The good news is, according to Air Force officials, your health won't suffer from the blunder. Hill's calculations, reviewed by the Utah Division of Radiation Control, indicate that the public health risks are negligible.

We hope they're right, because radioactive substances aren't fit to be burned. They're supposed to be buried very deep, especially uranium that's 40 times hotter than the nuclear waste EnergySolutions accepts.

Environmental activists and public health advocates were shocked and alarmed by the radioactive revelation. You should be, too. After all, this is Utah, where toxic waste is incinerated, nuclear waste is dumped, chemical and biological weapons were tested, and the fallout from years of atomic weapons testing sickened and killed an untold number of human beings the government treated like guinea pigs.

We deserve better. A full-blown investigation and a complete explanation would be a good start.

© 2008 The Salt Lake Tribune

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