This is just such a mind-blowing story! One city getting rid of its radioactive waste after years of contamination (see http://sccagainsturanium.blogspot.com/2009/05/tons-of-tainted-tailings-are-on-move.html and another city taking possession of the nasty stuff. The process itself sounds pretty intense too...imagine either process taking place in Southside. Amazing...and scary.
By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
MOAB — Motorists whipping past along I-70 see only the turnoff for Moab at the sign that says Crescent Junction. But a little to the north, a train sits on the railroad tracks, and oversize trucks unload rail cars.
From there containers of the radioactive waste that are the legacy of a bankrupt uranium mine are unloaded one after the other, filling up a disposal cell that will trap the tailings for years to come.
Much was celebrated Monday to the south on the outskirts of Moab at the former Atlas mine site, where full-time operations to remove the waste have been under way since mid-April.
Long feared for its potential to contaminate the Colorado River, groundwater and other ecologically sensitive areas, the "Pile" is slowly being chewed away and taken to its new resting spot.
The 16 million tons of tailings look actually like little more than mounds upon mounds of red dirt.
"But it has to be managed right because of its radioactivity," said Mark Walker, spokesman for EnergySolutions.
The Utah-based company won the $98.7 million contract to begin the initial disposal process at the Crescent Junction site.
The material is loaded onto the railroad cars and taken along an active Union Pacific rail line to the "cell" — a gaping hole 25 feet deep and 1,700 feet wide by 1,800 feet long.
Truckloads of the waste are dumped, allowed to dry and settle for a bit before a front-end loader makes monotonous swipes over the material to compact it even more.
A GPS-aided process ensures it is compacted in 1-foot layers upon layers to maximize the space available.
More than 50,000 gallons of water conveyed in a 22-mile pipeline to the site are used daily for dust control and to spray the containers free of any radioactive material.
Between 14 and 17 employees work seven days a week at the site, beginning their shift with a safety meeting and ending by 5:30 p.m.
The area where the mining waste has been deposited so far is roped off and marked with signs warning of radioactive material, but the workers themselves do not don any outrageous spacesuit style gear. They do wear protective clothing and carry monitors to measure potential radioactivity, as well as gloves, booties and hard hats.
As this site begins to fill up years from now, it will expand to the east because of the $108 million in Department of Energy stimulus funding directed to the project to accelerate cleanup.
That money moved the timeline up for removal of the waste by 2019.
Even Walker, a Moab native who experienced the heydays of Moab during the boom of mining, says it's easy to think the cleanup shouldn't take that long.
It's only after people see the monstrous "Pile" that they begin to understand how long the process will take.
"It's pretty incredible," Walker said.