Tuesday, April 14, 2009

NRC Balks at Calling Depleted Uranium Higher-Risk

By Brock Vergakis

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says classifying large amounts of depleted uranium as a hotter type of low-level radioactive waste without further study would not provide additional protections to public health, safety or the environment.

The NRC's comments come in an April 9 letter to Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Edward Markey, D-Mass. The congressmen have questioned the NRC's March decision to regulate large quantities of depleted uranium as the least hazardous kind of low-level radioactive waste, known as Class A waste.

Depleted uranium is different from other waste because it becomes more radioactive over time.

The NRC decision could result in more than 1 million tons of depleted uranium being disposed of in Clive, Utah and Andrews County, Texas. Matheson and Markey have called the ruling an "arbitrary and capricious mischaracterization" of the waste.

The two sit on the subcommittee that oversees the NRC and asked the commission to explain its decision.

"In summary, the commission believes that, in the absence of comprehensive technical and legal analyses, changing the waste classification of [depleted uranium] would be premature, could have significant and unforeseeable consequences, and would not provide for more protection of public health and safety and the environment," NRC chairman Dale Klein wrote in response to the congressmen.

By default, depleted uranium has long been considered Class A waste by the NRC and small amounts of it have been accepted in Utah. The NRC never specifically categorized depleted uranium when it developed its guidelines in the early 1980s because so little of it needed to be disposed of at the time.

The debate over how to best classify large volumes of depleted uranium arose in 2005 when a consortium of primarily European companies that own Louisiana Energy Services applied for a license to open a uranium enrichment facility near Eunice, New Mexico.

NRC staff proposed, and commissioners approved 3-1 last month, continuing to classify depleted uranium as Class A waste. But they also required additional safeguards for its disposal in an acknowledgment that it is different from other Class A waste.

The NRC said it consulted with state regulators in South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington on how they view depleted uranium to reach its decision.

"In general, state regulators agreed with the need to handle large quantities of (depleted uranium) as a unique waste stream, regardless of its current waste classification, and agreed that additional analysis should be conducted prior to its disposal," commission staff wrote.

Klein's letter said it is "highly unlikely" any disposal of large quantities of depleted uranium will occur before 2011, which gives staff time to hold public workshops and develop technical rules for how the waste should be disposed of.

Matheson and Markey have also told the NRC to turn over all e-mails, phone call logs, meeting notes, memoranda and analyses related to the depleted uranium decision.

Matheson's spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, said Matheson had not seen the NRC's letter yet and that he's still waiting for the NRC to turn over the documents he's requested.

The NRC has until April 20 to comply with the document request.


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