Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Energy Dept. Boosts Clean up of Uranium Tailings

By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press Writer

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The U.S. Energy Department has allocated $108 million in economic stimulus aid for removing the 16 million ton radioactive tailings pile on the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said Tuesday the funding commitment shows that the Energy Department is trying to meet a 2019 cleanup deadline. As recently as February, the department maintained the cleanup would not be finished before 2028, he said.

The money will help remove an extra 2 million tons of tailings by 2011 — the end of the current five-year removal contract. That will be accomplished by adding more rail cars and more rail shipments from the former Atlas Mineral Corp. site near Moab to a disposal site about 30 miles away.

Shipments are set to begin in April.

The waste is part of a Cold War legacy in Moab, where rich uranium deposits were mined during the 1950s for nuclear weapons. The Atlas Minerals Corp. bought the mill in 1962. It closed in 1984 but left behind the heap of tailings on the banks of the Colorado River.

Matheson and other lawmakers worked to convince the Energy Department that the massive pile should be moved away from the river's banks, rather than capped. The final environmental impact decision adopting that action was issued in 2005.

The overall cost of the cleanup is estimated at $1 billion.

"There is overwhelming scientific evidence that this site is unstable and that the contamination already migrating under the river towards the town of Moab could, with one major flood event, be dumped into the Colorado (River)," Matheson said in a statement.

The river is a source of drinking water for 50 million people, including residents of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Despite the legacy of the Atlas tailings pile, there has been renewed interest in uranium mining and processing, driven by speculation that efforts to combat climate change will reinvigorate the nuclear power industry.

The first application since 1988 for a uranium processing facility was filed in October with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Since then, the NRC has received at least 27 applications for facilities in Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico. Utah, Colorado and Texas have their own oversight agencies.

More than 1,100 uranium mining claims have been filed for sites within five miles of the Grand Canyon in recent years.


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