Thursday, February 11, 1999

Federal administrative judge backs mill's accepting nuclear waste

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A federal administrative judge has rejected the state's claim that the White Mesa uranium mill is engaged in a sham disposal of radioactive waste.

The mill is accepting the waste to extract uranium from it, but the state contends that is just a pretext so it can accept large payments for disposal of the material.

Peter B. Bloch, a judge for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, said this week that the federal license issued to Denver-based International Uranium Corp. allows the company to process a wide range of "alternate feeds" at its uranium mill.

"We're pretty happy," IUC president Earl Hoellen said Wednesday. "We feel good about our arguments and so did the judge."

Bill Sinclair, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control, said he is "looking seriously" at the possibility of an appeal to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

He fears the judge's decision will allow IUC to process numerous materials now classified as radioactive wastes. If IUC wants to convert the uranium mill into a waste-disposal facility, the company should comply with the state's regulations for such facilities, Sinclair contends.

The dispute is over IUC's decision to accept and process material containing low levels of uranium from a cleanup project in Tonawanda, N.Y.

State officials argue that IUC received $4,050,000 to handle a material that contained no more than $600,000 worth of uranium. Sinclair called this "sham disposal" because uranium extraction was only a pretext to dispose of the waste in the mill's tailings pond.

They contend federal rules say an alternate feed can be accepted only if processed "primarily for its source-material content." In this case, they said the primary reason for processing the material appeared to be disposal rather than the removal of uranium.

Bloch said this argument "has some superficial appeal," but is based on an incorrect reading of federal law.

The judge said the provision stating "primarily for its source-material content" is included in the law to keep out companies that process uranium as a secondary process.

For example, Kennecott Utah Copper for many years extracted small quantities of uranium from Bingham Canyon copper ores. Since this was not the primary reason for processing the ore, federal rules would prohibit Kennecott from handling alternate feeds such as the New York waste.

Using this interpretation, Bloch said it is clear IUC is processing the New York waste primarily for uranium rather than some other mineral.

He described IUC's work as a legitimate recycling operation that prevents valuable uranium from being sent to a disposal facility and being lost forever. Extracting the uranium also reduces the long-term environmental risk of disposing the processed waste, the judge said.

Sinclair said the judge's ruling would allow IUC to accept almost any waste as long as some uranium could be extracted. He contends this blurs the line between uranium mills and disposal facilities for low-level radioactive wastes, such as the Envirocare of Utah site in Tooele County.