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Citing Spills, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Halts Uranium Waste Shipments to SE Utah

Utah Department of Environmental Quality

Twice a year, the Cameco uranium mine in central Wyoming sends a truckload of a mining byproduct known in the trade as “barium sludge” to the White Mesa uranium mill south of Blanding. The last two truckloads have resulted in highway spills. The most recent was on March 29th. Ken Vaughn is a Cameco spokesman for the Smith Ranch uranium mine, which is near Casper, Wyoming.

“We’re at work to make sure we address all the issues directed by the NRC. We’re not aware of any impacts to environment or public health. I think we need to let the process work through and then we’ll know what actions to take that both we and the NRC are comfortable with and feel appropriate. It’s more important to us that we get it right than we worry about how long it’s going to take.”

On the March journey to Utah, the truck’s driver reported he “had to hit the brakes hard” near Meeker, Colorado, to avoid deer. The driver stated he didn’t notice the spillage all over the truck until the turnoff near Blanding.

“Well the truck and the bin were surveyed upon arrival at the disposal site and were cleaned," said Vaughn. "And the company that operates the disposal site cleaned some material from the road, Highway 191. The route from the last visual inspection of the truck in Rawlins, Wyoming, was surveyed with radiation detecting equipment at all stopping and turning points, and there was no indication of any additional spill material.”

Credit Utah Department of Environmental Quality

  The companies involved have stressed that the spill was small and mostly confined to the truck, and that the truck contained “low level” radioactive material. But regulators say Cameco “failed to accurately determine the amount of radioactive material in the sludge” and question what’s in it. Sarah Fields is the Program Director for Moab-based Uranium Watch, which monitors public health and environmental impacts from all activities in the nuclear fuel cycle.

“I think there’s a concern in Southeastern Utah that waste is coming down I-70 and then down Highway 191 to White Mesa," Fields said. "And because of a lack of regulatory oversight, waste has not been properly packaged. It has not been properly characterized. I don’t think the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control has a good handle on the disposal of this particular type of very liquid, radium and barium-laden waste. The NRC has asked for more details, and if they’re still asking questions then I’m sure the state of Utah really needs to ask questions about what is in this material.”

Credit Utah Department of Environmental Quality

  Fields says the position of Uranium Watch is that the NRC, and the state of Utah, failed to anticipate the problems involved in shipping radioactive waste from Wyoming to Blanding.

“Cameco, at this one facility, has a long history of incompetence, indifference, a lot of violations, a variety of violations," she said. "And I do not know how prepared Grand County is to clean up this type of a spill, particularly if it’s on a lengthy stretch of road, particularly if it’s right next to Arches National Park, and then gets tracked in to the park. When you have thousands of cars coming to and from Moab, it would get dispersed widely, and the radionuclides in this waste were quite hot, a great deal higher than background.”

The White Mesa mill is currently in litigation with the Navajo Nation and Grand Canyon Trust over high radon emissions and the threat to local groundwater.

Credit Utah Department of Environmental Quality

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."