Utah takes nuclear waste from states with own dump

By BROCK VERGAKIS, Associated Press Writer

Tue May 5, 5:06 pm ET

SALT LAKE CITY – Despite having their own radioactive waste dump, three states have shipped millions of cubic feet of waste across the country this decade to a private Utah facility that is the only one available to 36 other states, according to an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Department of Energy records.

The shipments are stoking concerns that waste from Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina is taking up needed space in Utah, unnecessarily creating potential shipping hazards and undermining the government's intent for states to dispose of their own waste on a regional basis.


"It's clear that the low-level waste system in this country is broken when there are states with their own dump sites sending tons of radioactive garbage across the country for disposal in Utah," said Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, an advocacy group. "The compact system, which was supposed to protect states from becoming the country's dumping ground, has been totally derailed."

Since the 1980s, the federal government has urged states to build low-level radioactive waste landfills, either on their own or in cooperation with other states in compact systems. But only one low-level landfill, in Utah, has opened in the past 30 years, and it accepts only Class A waste, considered the least hazardous.

While waste is created around the country at nuclear power plants, hospitals, universities and research labs, only three states — South Carolina, Utah and Washington — currently have disposal sites because of the expense of creating facilities and public opposition to hosting them.

The Hanford site near Richland, Wash., is closed to all but 11 Western states, and South Carolina hasn't accepted waste from outside the three-state Atlantic Compact of South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut since July.

The 3.6 million cubic feet of Class A waste disposed of at EnergySolutions Inc.'s Utah facility by the Atlantic Compact is more than 50 times greater than the amount of Class A waste it disposed of at its own site near Barnwell, S.C., since the compact was formed in 2000.

It also represents more than 13 percent of the Class A waste volume disposed of in Utah in the same period, according to Department of Energy records.

Atlantic Compact chairman Benjamin Johnson wrote in March 2007 that there was 1.2 million cubic feet of capacity remaining at the South Carolina landfill.

Between then and May 2009, the three states disposed of more than 300,000 cubic feet of Class A waste in the Utah desert, about 70 miles west of Salt Lake City, records show. The Barnwell site accepted 12,000 cubic feet in that same time, including more dangerous Class B and C waste, which isn't allowed in Utah.

EnergySolutions officials say the Utah facility has reached about 46 percent of its capacity, though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it probably won't be full for decades.

Still, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who is concerned about the site's capacity, has introduced a bill in Congress prohibiting the importation of foreign radioactive waste, saying space for domestic waste needs to be preserved.

He also said he is worried about the "inherent transportation dangers to the public and to the environment from radioactive waste shipments through our state," even though spills are rare.

Environmental groups are more blunt.

"At any point there could be ... routine exposure along the way, there could be accidents, fires or just other kinds of crashes," said Diane D'Arrigo, radioactive waste project director for the Takoma Park, Md.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "The more nuclear shipping we have, the more accidents we're going to have."

The Utah site was never intended to be a compact facility. The compact to which Utah belongs forbids its member states from sending their waste to Utah. Instead, their waste goes to Washington's Hanford site.

No other compact prohibits waste from coming to Utah, and state lawmakers haven't placed any limits on where it can come from.

"The in-region generators are free to ship their waste to Timbuktu if they want. They have no restrictions," said Max Batavia, executive director of the Atlantic Compact.

Batavia said nuclear power plants, hospitals and universities send their waste 2,000 miles to Utah because it's less expensive than using the South Carolina facility, where rates are set by state officials and the site is managed by EnergySolutions subsidiary Chem-Nuclear at a set 29 percent profit margin.

With no rules prohibiting the exportation of waste out of the compact, it's possible South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut could also soon begin shipping their Class B and C waste elsewhere.

Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists LLC has told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission it wants to accept waste at its western Texas facility from outside its compact. It is unclear when a newly formed commission will decide if waste from outside the compact will be allowed.