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Radioactive Waste Bill Moves Fast Through The Utah Legislature

Photo of radioactive waste barrell. / WellPhoto

A state Senate committee advanced legislation Thursday that would eliminate a policy obstacle that prevents EnergySolutions from accepting large volumes of depleted uranium at its Tooele County radioactive waste landfill.

In passing House Bill 220, 7-2, the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee put the company one step closer to attaining a goal it’s had for years: securing state approval for big shipments of an unconventional type of low-level radioactive waste that gets more hazardous over time. The move also amounted to a snub of the Utah governor’s office, which urged senators on Thursday to take more time to consider the complex but fast-moving bill.

Energy Solutions, one of Utah’s biggest political donors, requested the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield. Albrecht carried it swiftly through the House, winning passage in less than a week. By Thursday afternoon, when the Senate committee took it up, the bill had already been overhauled three times.

Department of Environmental Quality Director Alan Matheson, speaking on behalf of the governor’s office, told senators that Gov. Gary Herbert was uncomfortable with parts of the bill.

He mentioned how the original wording could have been read to suggest that the state won’t require in-depth safety evaluations for depleted uranium even though it doesn’t reach its most hazardous state for over 1 million years.

The EnergySolutions application for depleted uranium has been undergoing an expert safety review for seven years and still isn't done.


“The concern is that we not move forward at an accelerated rate without taking the time to address some of these issues first,” Matheson said.


Matheson also indicated that the governor has refused to sign a bill that did not ensure the U.S. Energy Department is the waste site’s ultimate owner. Otherwise, Utah taxpayers would be liable.

The committee’s seven Republicans voted to send on HB220 for Senate floor votes.


“I’m trusting in the science of what our state people can do and what the national people can do to inter this correctly,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, the Tremonton Republican who will manage the bill on the Senate floor.

EnergySolutions is one of three sites nationwide competing for a contract to accept 825,000 tons of depleted uranium waste from government enrichment facilities in Kentucky and Ohio. But the company needs the state’s approval — both the legal issues and safety concerns – before it could sign the lucrative contract.

The company has said that the bill simply clarifies state law.

Lawmakers who backed the EnergySolutions bill in the House earlier this week said the radioactive waste company provides good Utah jobs and does a public service for the nation at its specialized disposal site.

“We have the ability to deal with this currently, and we will have more ability to deal with it as things progress,” said Rep. Phil Lyman, R-San Juan County.

The House voted Tuesday, 51 to 20, to approve the change. But the Senate and Gov. Gary Herbert must approve the change before the new wording becomes law.

Critics are lobbying against H.B. 220 because of the policy shift.

“We’re still educating senators on what this means and the public on why this bill is harmful for Utah,” said Grace Olscamp of the nonprofit HEAL Utah.

In 2005, the Legislature passed a ban on hotter waste — everything from spent nuclear fuel to power plant maintenance resins.

Then EnergySolutions applied for a license to accept large volumes of depleted uranium. Since then, radioactive waste consultants have been reviewing the safety implications of the company’s request.

Depleted uranium is different than other kinds of low-level waste that EnergySolutions handles. The Tooele County site is one of few facilities licensed to accept low-level radioactive cleanup waste from around the nation. Such waste is mildly contaminated with radioactive material from bomb-making and nuclear power plants over the past four decades.

Depleted uranium is unusual because it meets Utah’s hazard limits today. Over time, however, it becomes more radioactive. If the EnergySolutions site accepts large volumes of depleted uranium, the radioactivity would exceed state limits, but far into the future — around 30,000 to 40,000 years from now.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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