The News That Matters about the Nuclear Industry Fukushima Chernobyl Mayak Three Mile Island Atomic Testing Radiation Isotope

Will Bears Ears Become the World’s Radioactive Waste Dump?

First, it was a multinational corporation with a factory in the Baltic nation of Estonia that sought to send its unwanted radioactive waste to southeast Utah. Now, another overseas entity, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), has its sights set on the White Mesa uranium mill for new radioactive waste shipments as well.

Is the White Mesa Mill, on the doorstep of the White Mesa Ute community and just outside the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, on a fast track to become a dumping ground for foreign industrial polluters and distant government entities? Not if we have anything to say about it.

Why White Mesa?

Why, you may ask, is the White Mesa Mill so attractive for those in faraway lands who want to dispose of their radioactive waste? It’s simple, really. Sending the material to a uranium mill halfway around the world is expedient when compared to other options. It’s likely the cheapest option for the waste generator.

And this waste-processing business helps keep the struggling uranium mill afloat amid market downturns, too. Usually, the mill would pay miners for the uranium ore they deliver. In this case, it’s likely that the party sending the waste will pay the mill. On a recent investor call, the mill owner’s CEO admitted that accepting, processing, and disposing of these kinds of wastes earns the company $5-15 million a year.

What is this stuff?

In late May, the mill’s owner, Energy Fuels Resources, notified the state of Utah’s Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control that the company plans to receive 136 tons (about 10 dump trucks full) of radioactive waste from two Japan Atomic Energy Agency research facilities: the Ningyo Center and the Tono Center.

The material includes natural uranium ores from mines in Japan and other mines around the world that the Japanese agency tested, as well as uranium-loaded resins, filter-bed sands, and uranium-loaded carbon — materials that concentrate uranium during water cleanup at the two facilities.

The waste contains very little uranium. According to the mill owner, the company would produce less than 0.6 tons of yellowcake from the waste; the rest of the 136 tons would be dumped in massive waste pits at the mill that sit above the White Mesa Ute community’s drinking-water supply. The company likes to claim that it’s “recycling.” But charging millions to accept waste and ultimately dumping more than 99 percent of it into waste pits sounds like a radioactive waste dump, not a recycling operation.

When is the Japanese waste coming?

Energy Fuels Resources’ letter gives no dates as to when it plans to accept this waste, to be shipped from Japan across the Pacific Ocean, likely to ports in Washington state, then transferred to White Mesa by rail and truck across the Western United States. Utah regulators have evaluated the company’s proposal, and on July 28, 2020, they issued a letter concurring with the company’s plans.

This means you, the public, had no formal opportunity to weigh in. That’s why letting regulators know that you object to the Japanese waste is so important now.

No import license, no public involvement

Energy Fuels Resources claims, and the state of Utah agrees, that it doesn’t need an individual import license issued by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to accept the Japanese radioactive waste. Nor, the company claims, does it need an amendment to its state-issued license, which would trigger a public comment period.

These claims are based on regulatory alchemy. Though the material is radioactive and is viewed as waste in Japan, the mill owner prefers to call the material “natural ores and equivalent feed materials” because those are the materials the company is licensed to accept for processing and permanent disposal at the mill. But we disagree.

We object to more international radioactive waste being shipped to the White Mesa Mill near the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s White Mesa Community. We also believe the public should be heard on this matter. That’s why we’re asking you to take action.

Act now. Let Utah regulators know that the White Mesa Mill is no place for foreign waste ›

History repeats itself

This isn’t the first time the Japanese government has shipped radioactive waste to the White Mesa Mill. In 2004, the Japanese Supreme Court ordered the removal of contaminated soils from the Ningyo-Toge area (one of the two sites that could ship waste now) based on pressure and litigation from those living nearby. Hefty fines were levied against the Japan Atomic Energy Agency for each day the waste remained on site past a court-imposed deadline. In 2005, the agency paid the then-owners of the White Mesa Mill $5.8 million to process uranium from and permanently dispose of 500 tons of contaminated soils.

The Salt Lake Tribune covered the story then, and it sounds much like the situation today. The Tribune noted that “reports from Japan often describe the contaminated soil as waste headed to Utah for disposal.” In 2005, as now, the owners of the mill claim the material is “ore,” not “waste,” and that no special licenses are required.

What’s changed since then? In 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission clarified that an import license is required unless the “materials [are] imported solely for the purposes of recycling and not for waste management or disposal…” A 2003 paper on Ningyo and Tono cleanup plans states repeatedly that: “reclamation of uranium mining and milling facilities is necessary to reduce the burden of the waste management on future generations.”

Then, as now, shipping the waste to White Mesa shifts the burden to the White Mesa Ute community. These materials are clearly treated as waste in Japan, just as the Estonian material is treated as undesirable waste in Estonia. In Japan as in Estonia, the goal is disposal — far away. For that reason, we believe the mill’s owners need an import license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for this waste, and for the Estonian waste.

Join us in letting the state of Utah know you agree. White Mesa, the White Mesa Ute community, and Bears Ears cannot become the world’s radioactive dumping ground.

September 24, 2020 - Posted by | USA, wastes

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: