FRIDAY October 31, 2003

N-waste sneaking in under old name

By Judy Fahys
The Salt Lake Tribune

    By a different name, the radioactive sludge the U.S. Energy Department hopes to clean up from an Ohio Superfund site and dump in Utah would be banned under state law.
    Even so, because of a loophole in the federal regulatory scheme for labeling the radioactive rubbish, the highly contaminated Ohio waste may dodge state policy and get sent to a Tooele County landfill.
    As far as state-regulated low-level radioactive waste goes, the Ohio waste would normally be designated "Class C" because it contains so much long-lived radioactive radium.
    State lawmakers, however, set a moratorium on Class C waste last winter.
    Both the Department of Energy (DOE) and Envirocare of Utah, the disposal site DOE fancies for the Ohio waste, have downplayed or disputed the hazard of the sludge. Instead, they have emphasized its label -- the waste is officially called "byproduct material" -- which says nothing about its radioactive concentration or that it will remain hazardous practically forever.
    U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham succeeded in getting a provision to reclassify the waste so it can go to Envirocare, opening the door for another potential disposal site besides the government-run Nevada Test Site.
    "This provision in the Energy Bill," said a DOE spokeswoman in a prepared statement, "is intended to remove a regulatory gap that precludes DOE from disposing of this waste as uranium mill tailings at a commercial mill tailings disposal site."
    Said Envirocare, in an advertisement last week: "News reports about 'hotter' waste from Fernald are simply wrong." The company declined to comment about this story, despite repeated requests.
    Local activists see things quite differently.
    "They are working to undermine our state's right to protect our residents from dangerous waste and restrict what is dumped in our community," said activists Claire Geddes of Utah Legislative Watch and Jason Groenewold of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, who issued a joint statement calling on political leaders to represent Utahns opposed to hotter waste.
    For weeks, Envirocare of Utah and its supporters have been lumping the Fernald, Ohio, cleanup waste together with the tailings usually left over from the milling of uranium ore.
    It is true that the Fernald waste is the byproduct of uranium ore processing. The so-called "K-65" sludge contained in two crumbling silos is the radioactive leftover of a uranium mill that made fuel for the federal atomic bomb-making plants from 1953 to 1989.
    And, since the old radiation categories are only based on where radioactive waste originated -- not its estimated risk to health and the environment -- the category recognizes no difference between the silo waste and, say, the mildly radioactive tailings heap left by the defunct Atlas Corp. outside of Moab.
    However, those familiar with the Fernald waste (the dregs of a 14-year, $4.4 billion Superfund cleanup), say the silos contain super-concentrated tailings that are far closer to the transuranic and high-level waste the DOE must bury in deep repositories in New Mexico and Nevada than it is to the "dirty dirt" near Moab.
    "It's crazy, absolutely crazy," said Allan Richardson, a retired radiation office official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, commenting on the idea of sending the waste to a shallow burial site like Envirocare. "It's very close to high-level waste and plutonium."
    That sentiment was echoed by Chris Whipple, an expert on radioactive waste who has studied DOE's disposal problems for the independent National Academies of Science.
    Calling the silo waste "a good example of why the waste classification system should be reconsidered," he agreed that the Fernald waste does fall into the loose "byproduct" category set by the 1954 Atomic Energy Act.
    "That said," Whipple noted, "the K-65 waste is hotter than hell. It's not run-of-the-mill tailings waste."
    One reason the silo sludge is so different is that it originated from extraordinarily rich ore from the former Belgian Congo. That ore was 65 percent uranium, while typical ores from Canada are less than 10 percent uranium and ores from the Four Corners states are usually around 1 percent.
    Plus, the way Fernald processed the ore rendered the stuff even more potent.
    In its current state, the sludge contains roughly 391,000 picocuries per gram of radium, making it four times hotter than any low-level waste facility in the nation allows.
    A picocurie is one trillionth of a curie, the standard measure for radioactivity. Generally, the more picocuries, the more dangerous the material.
    Also, as it decays, radium produces radon, a gas known to cause lung cancer. While the Fernald waste produces radon at more than 20 million picocuries per liter of air, the EPA advises homeowners to clean up radon buildup in homes if it is measured at as little as 4 picocuries radon per liter of air.
    Another concern of the Fernald waste is the long half-life of its radium: 1,622 years. Whipple said: "This stuff is going to be dangerous indefinitely."
    Under current law, the Fernald silo waste:

    * Must be diluted 4-to-1 with cement and other inert ingredients so -- at 90,000 picocuries of radium per gram of waste -- it can meet federal shipping standards and avoid being ordered into expensive deep underground burial.

    * Would require an act of Congress to be reclassified to be eligible for disposal in a special section at Envirocare, a cheaper option than commercial disposal facilities already licensed to accept Class C waste in South Carolina and Washington state (neither of which will take the waste) or the Nevada Test Site. In the three states with commercial low-level waste landfills, waste containing between 10,000 to 100,000 picocuries per gram of radium must be disposed of using Class C precautions for public health, worker safety and the environment.

    * Would require changes to Envirocare's U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license, which currently allows no more than 4,000 picocuries per gram of radium.

    Dianne Nielson, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Protection, said the state has no authority to keep the concentrated silo waste out of Utah because, despite the Legislature's 21-month moratorium on Class B and C waste and Gov. Mike Leavitt's determination to keep hotter waste out of Utah, the NRC has oversight of the federal section of Envirocare's mile-square landfill.

Copyright 2003, The Salt Lake Tribune.
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