Government Proposes to Move Nuclear Waste Piled Near the Colorado River
SALT LAKE CITY The Energy Department on Wednesday proposed to move a huge pile of radioactive waste away from the banks of the Colorado River -- a victory for environmentalists and Western politicians who fear the debris could poison the Southwest's major source of drinking water.
The 12 million-ton pile -- a mostly open-air heap that sits on bare ground and is surrounded only by a chain-link fence -- sits on a flood plain 750 feet (225 meters) from a river that supplies drinking water to about 25 million people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and other cities.
The Energy Department said it will recommend in an environmental impact statement that the waste be moved to a closed storage facility about 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the north, near Crescent Junction.
The department will review all public comment before issuing a final decision, probably early this summer, according to Don Metzler, who manages the site from the department's Grand Junction, Colorado, office.
"I certainly hoped for this decision," said Rep. Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat. "Moving the pile has always been, in my opinion, the right thing to do. Short-term cost considerations, I feared, were driving us to look at keeping the pile in place."
The site, covering 130 acres (52 hectares) near the town of Moab, is the only decommissioned uranium mill overseen by the Energy Department that has yet to be cleaned up. The 94-foot (28-meter)-tall pile contains dirt, toxic chemicals and traces of radioactive substances left behind from decades of uranium ore processing.
The immediate concern is that the waste is seeping into the soil and groundwater, and working its way into the Colorado River. Environmentalists say the contamination is already killing fish.
The larger, doomsday fear is that a major flood on the Colorado could wash the stuff into the river and poison the water with residual uranium, radon, ammonia and other dangerous material.
At the new location, the waste would be covered and buried in a hole, lined with a protective layer to keep the material from seeping into the groundwater. Depending on how the waste got there -- by rail, truck or pipeline -- the cleanup would cost an estimated $407 million (euro316.5 million) to $472 million (euro367 million).
The waste began piling up in the 1950s after the dawn of the atomic age turned sleepy little communities in Utah into uranium mining boom towns. The department took control of the site in 2001 after the most recent owner of the mill, Denver-based Atlas Corp., declared bankruptcy in 1998 when it realized it could not afford to deal with the mess.
In November, the Energy Department outlined four options for the site. Three of them called for moving the waste and burying it anywhere from 17 miles (27 kilometers) to 85 miles (137 kilometers) away in a hole. Option No. 4, which could cost only half as much, called for leaving the pile in place but covering it over with dirt and rocks.
But Gov. Jon Huntsman, Utah's congressional delegation, scores of activists and the Environmental Protection Agency warned that waste is too dangerous to leave it so close to the Colorado River.
The Energy Department has shown it is "willing to listen and work with us to find a reasonable solution for the mill tailings that pose a very real threat to the Colorado River and downstream water users," Huntsman said in a statement.
Source: Associated Press