By Matt Whittaker / NewsBreak Denver
(Lakewood, Colo.) A new report from a western conservation group calls for increased oversight of a Utah uranium mill owned by Lakewood-based Energy Fuels, which blasted the study as "unscientific hogwash."
The White Mesa uranium mill, located near the Bears Ears National Monument and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe reservation land in southeastern Utah, has become "America's cheapest radioactive waste dump," according to the Arizona-based Grand Canyon Trust, which published the report this week.
The property, which is also the only fully licensed and operating conventional uranium mill in the country, contains more than 700 million pounds of waste, including remnants of the Manhattan Project, the group said.
A key concern of the study's authors is that the mill has gone from only processing uranium ore from mines to operating as a "waste-disposal service" by taking a fee to process and dispose of low-level radioactive material from contaminated military and industrial sites around the nation.
The mill extracts small amounts of uranium from the material and holds the rest in waste ponds. It does this legally by obtaining amendments to its operating license from Utah, which took over regulatory responsibility for the mill in 2004.
The trust said that other sites that want to get rid of low-level radioactive material turn to the White Mesa because it is less expensive than facilities licensed to dispose of that waste.
“Polluters are finding that the cheapest place to send unwanted radioactive waste is the White Mesa Mill — but it’s not a waste dump, it’s a uranium mill,” said Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes director with the trust. “If the White Mesa Mill wants to act like a radioactive waste dump, it should be regulated like one.”
Beyond the regulatory concerns, the report's authors are worried about potential pollution from the White Mesa waste ponds, containing contaminants including heavy metals that cause cancer. The ponds are situated above the Navajo Aquifer, which supplies water to southeastern Utah and northern Arizona.
"While scientists are unsure of how far and how fast contaminants from the mill could travel and if leaks could ultimately pose a threat to the Navajo Aquifer, community members in White Mesa remain concerned about potential contamination of their drinking water," the report said.
The authors are also concerned about air pollutants including radon, citing a December letter from the Environmental Protection Agency determining that the mill wouldn't be allowed to accept Superfund waste because of an "egregious" violation at one of its ponds.
Because the pond didn't have enough water, the agency estimated the uncovered waste material was emitting about 10 times the amount of radon that otherwise would have been released.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates the mill, said the “highly regulated facility” doesn’t exceed exposure limits permitted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and complies with all state and federal regulations, including air quality monitoring and a “stringent” groundwater permit.
“There is no evidence to support assertions that activities from the mill have negatively impacted groundwater, drinking water, or air quality,” said department spokeswoman Ashley Sumner.
Energy Fuels said its efforts are critical to transitioning away from fossil fuels to combat climate change.
"The mill is not a waste dump," said spokesman Curtis Moore. "It is a world-leading facility that is setting an example of responsible sustainable operations."
The mill's processing of off-site waste materials is a recycling program that has recovered enough uranium to eliminate millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions compared to coal-fired electricity generation, he said. Nuclear power plants generate electricity without the greenhouse gas emissions of coal plants.
"Their so-called report is unscientific hogwash," Moore said. "Apparently, this activist group is coming out against recycling?"