Energy Department says South Carolina uranium not headed to Nevada

Nevada has been ruled out as an alternative disposal site for low-level radioactive waste from South Carolina currently scheduled to go to Utah.

Lauren Milone, a Department of Energy spokeswoman, said today nearly 15,000 drums of the material will either be disposed of in Utah or remain in South Carolina.

A final decision could come next week.

Milone said the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles north of Las Vegas, is being excluded from discussions about the depleted uranium because the energy department agreed to conduct a statewide environmental impact statement before accepting new waste there.

The review would take too long, probably at least a year, she said.

Disposal of the Savannah River Site waste is being funded through federal stimulus money, which is intended to quickly spur the economy.

The first shipments of depleted uranium were scheduled to leave South Carolina for Utah this month, but the move was opposed by an environmental group and U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

Depleted uranium is different from other waste disposed at EnergySolutions Inc.’s facility 70 miles west of Salt Lake City, because it becomes more radioactive over time, for up to 1 million years.

The material is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process used to make nuclear weapons in the Cold War era.

EnergySolutions operates the country’s largest and only privately owned low-level radioactive waste disposal site.

Utah’s radiation control board is undergoing a rule-making process that would require EnergySolutions to prove it could safely dispose of the material before it accepts any more of the waste.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is also revising its rules for how depleted uranium should be disposed of, although that isn’t expected to be completed until 2012 at the earliest.

In September, Matheson asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to suspend shipments from the Savannah River site and to postpone any decisions on the disposal of waste from Department of Energy sites in Portsmouth, Ohio, and Paducah, Ky., until the commission finalizes rules on disposal.

Recognizing opposition in Utah, the Energy Department gave a presentation to the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board on Nov. 17 that said interrupted shipments to Utah would be diverted to Nevada.

In the past fiscal year, more than 4,000 drums of depleted uranium were sent by truck from South Carolina to Nevada, according to the presentation.

Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the nuclear waste watchdog group Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said she fears the enery department may ship at least some of the depleted uranium to Utah before the Utah Radiation Control Board can finalize its rules to spend the stimulus money.

The original Department of Energy schedule had the depleted uranium shipments to Utah completed by late spring.

"There’s no health or safety reason to move this material at this time," Pierce said. "Ultimately, it does need to be disposed of in an adequate facility, but let’s wait and see what the rule-making process comes up with."

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