Despite concerns that the plan could be a figurative train wreck, a train load of depleted uranium is set to depart the federal Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, bound for Utah.
The DOE announced last week that the first of three train loads of the radioactive waste will soon be shipped as part of a project in which federal stimulus money is unfairly being used to clean up the Palmetto State at the Beehive State's expense. In all, 14,800 drums containing 11,000 tons of DU, a byproduct of uranium enrichment, are earmarked for EnergySolutions' low-level radioactive waste disposal facility at Clive in Tooele County.
But the decision to ship is premature because the verdict is still out on the best way to dispose of DU.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, while classifying DU as Class A waste suitable for disposal at Clive, has never actually studied the risks posed by burying large quantities of the material in shallow landfills like EnergySolutions' Utah dump. That review, which is expected to take several years to complete, is still in the early stages. Plus, Utah's Radiation Control Board is requiring EnergySolutions to write a technical report assessing the long-term safety of the site, a process that will take about a year.
Because those studies are still under way, the DOE should steer the train onto a siding. A more misguided, ill-timed shipping schedule is unimaginable, especially since DU poses no short-term threat. The drums of waste can, and should, sit safely at the Savannah site until state and federal regulators determine exactly where, and how, these radioactive leftovers from the uranium enrichment process should be buried. And it's hard to imagine that EnergySolutions' Utah landfill, which is designed to accept waste that remains dangerous for only 100 years, is an appropriate site.
Depleted uranium is a bomb with a very long fuse. The material, which becomes more radioactive over time, does not currently exceed the state's hazard standards for Class A waste. But it will continue to grow hotter and more dangerous for the next million years, and could eventually contaminate a wide area if the level of the Great Salt Lake rises, floods the disposal facility and disperses the material, an event that some scientists say is inevitable.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has voiced reservations about the long-lived materials, but with the train ready to roll, the time for talk has passed. It's time he put his concerns in writing, and formally ask the Energy Department to delay the shipments until the site-safety issue is settled.