Utah Foundation researchers address concerns associated with hazardous waste transportation, storage in state
Carbon County residents and Utahns across the state are concerned with the transportation and storage of hazardous waste.
Pertinent issues include Utah's historical experience dealing with hazardous waste, the state's current practices for managing the materials and the ongoing debates that will determine future policies.
The Utah code defines hazardous waste as:
A solid waste that causes or significantly contributes to an increase in mortality or an increase in serious irreversible or incapacitating reversible illness.
A solid waste that poses a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly treated, stored, transported, disposed of or managed.
Hazardous waste includes radioactive and non-radioactive materials, points out a research brief recently released by the Utah Foundation.
Significant amounts of hazardous waste started to be present in the state when miners began removing precious metals from Utah's mountains. The metals are not particularly hazardous. But the extraction process creates hazardous by-products, including arsenic, cyanide, lead and mercury.
With the growth of Utah's uranium industry in the first half of the 20th century, radioactive materials were also introduced into the state's economy.
Radioactive waste is divided into two types, low level and high level. Low level radioactive waste has three distinct categories - A, B and C. The actual levels of radioactivity, measured in curies, vary across materials within the groups.
The level of radioactivity is not the only factor considered when assigning a material to a group, explained the Utah Foundation research brief. The materials are evaluated and assigned a hazard-life, based on the unique interaction with human biology.
For instance, some isotopes tend to remain in the bloodstream for a longer time than others or to concentrate in certain organs, emitting radiation, while others are less harmful.
Low-level radioactive waste includes items that have become contaminated through exposure to neutron radiation. The materials come from sources within different industries like electricity production, national defense, manufacturing, medicine and research.
Examples are contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, cleaning materials, tools and equipment, syringes and various supplies.
The most radioactive low-level wastes are typically found in the water treatment residues and discarded parts from nuclear reactors, noted the foundation's research brief
High-level radioactive wastes are produced by two main industries - commercial electricity production and the United States Department of Defense. The waste materials produced by the industries include spent or used fuel rods and the buildings, materials and tools used to process the rods.
Since the conclusion of the Cold War, the U.S. Defense Department has significantly reduced the amount of high-level waste the federal agency produces. But commercial electricity production still relies heavily on nuclear power, especially in the eastern United States, indicated the foundation researchers.
Until relatively recently, the danger of exposure to hazardous materials was not well known. Tailings from most mines were left in piles near the entrance, where the materials frequently migrated into nearby groundwater.
The sand-like tailings from the uranium mines in southeastern Utah were added to local asphalt and concrete projects. Tailings from mines in the Salt Lake area were used as backfill for construction projects as well as sand for landscaping and other projects. Other hazardous wastes were disposed of as regular garbage in municipal dumps or were stored on site.
The Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste requires industries operating within the state to properly dispose of the waste products. Different processes apply for the storage and disposal of hazardous waste, depending on the type. Hazardous radioactive wastes require additional care.
Only low-level radioactive wastes are produced or accepted in Utah, pointed out the foundation's research brief. The waste produced in medicine and research have short hazard-lives that allow the materials to be stored in containers shielding the radiation until they have decayed to levels safe enough for disposal with regular garbage.
Envirocare is currently licensed by the state to accept only class A low-level radioactive waste. The permitted wastes include irradiated soil and construction debris from government and commercial locations, tools and equipment from nuclear power plants, protective clothing and lab supplies from medical and research facilities and filters used to clean water at nuclear power plants.
The facility disposes of the materials underground, isolating the waste from the air and surface as well as ground water using layers of rock and low-permeability clay. Envirocare asserts that the buried waste will remain isolated beyond the 100-year hazard-life of the waste.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is currently reviewing an application that would allow Envirocare to receive class B and C radioactive waste, explained the foundation researchers.
Transporting radioactive waste to the disposal facility is done by railcar and tractor-trailer. Envirocare maintains that exposure to radiation has not caused an accident or injury in 40 years of domestic and international radioactive material transportation due to the security of the containers.
Three types of containers are used to transport low-level waste, depending on the degree of radiation, according to the independent public policy organization's researchers brief.
Very low-level radioactive material is transported in metal boxes, secured with steel bands.
Slightly higher-level material is shipped in steel boxes or drums, tested to withstand normal transportation conditions.
The highest low-level radioactive materials are transported in metal casks that are engineered to withstand:
A 30-foot fall onto an unyielding surface.
A 40-inch drop onto a six-inch steel spike.
A 30-minute exposure to fire of 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit.
An eight-hour submersion under 50 feet of water.
The major policy debate nationwide has been about the transportation and storage of high-level radioactive waste, noted the Utah Foundation researchers.
The federal government has been evaluating Yucca Mountain, Nev., as a location for permanently disposing of spent nuclear fuel rods.
Many Utahns are concerned that a significant amount of the hazardous waste will travel through the state on the way to Nevada if the Yucca Mountain site is approved, continued the independent public policy organ-ization's research brief.
Private Fuel Storage is an alliance of eight national utility companies.
Private Fuel Storage is seeking a license from the U.S. National Regulatory Commission to allow the company to lease land from the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Tribe in order to store high-level radioactive waste.
The regulatory commission, which would maintain oversight, is currently reviewing the application.
If the license were granted, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs would be charged with approving the lease, pending environmental approval.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management would need to concede a right of way on the public property adjacent to the Goshute site, where the waste would be transferred from railcar to truck.
Additionally, the Goshute tribal general council would need to accept the proposal.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Governor Olene Walker have voiced strong opposition to the plan proposed by Private Fuel Storage, noted the foundation researchers.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality also houses an office that advocates against the proposal.
According to the independent public policy organization's research brief, the office housed by the state's environmental quality department outlined four primary arguments to oppose the hazardous waste plan proposed by Private Fuel Storage.
The arguments include:
The fact that temporary storage cannot be guaranteed to be temporary.
The proposed facility would be designed and constructed as a temporary location. However, there is no way to ensure the spent fuel rods will be removed from the site.
The need for a temporary storage site has not been documented.
The general accounting office, with the U.S. Department of Energy's concurrence, has determined that sufficient temporary storage capacity already exists at power plants generating the waste in question.
Utah does not generate the wastes in question.
Therefore, the state has no interest in increasing the potential risk and negative impact to people residing at locations across Utah by importing high-level nuclear waste.
Health and safety issues regarding the transportation of high-level nuclear waste have not been adequately addressed.
Despite Utah's opposition, the land in question is independent of the state's jurisdiction, indicated the foundation's research brief.
Therefore, Utah is limited in the state's ability to stop any agreement that may arise between Private Fuel Storage and the Skull Valley Band.
Like the majority of the country, Utah did little in the state's early history to regulate the release of hazardous wastes into the environment, explained the independent public policy organization researchers.
In 1980 as a result of an increasing awareness of the potential dangers the materials create when improperly handled, the U.S. Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.
The federal superfund act provided for the cleanup of the nation's worst hazardous waste sites.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a national priority listing (NPL) in conjunction with the federal legislation
The NPL is a list of the most urgent superfund sites in the nation. Utah has 22 sites on the list, of which eight have completed remediation.
The state's remaining 14 superfund sites identified on the NPL listing are currently in various stages of remediation, concluded the research brief released by the Utah Foundation.