As more than 150 people watched on Monday, a huge gantry crane transferred a 40-ton container of contaminated waste from a truck to a railroad car for the night’s journey to the permanent repository near Crescent Junction.
The moment marked the official start of what will be a years-long project to relocate 16 million tons of Cold War-era uranium mill tailings north of Moab. The project’s contractor, EnergySolutions, began moving the first trainloads of radioactive waste two weeks ago, giving the company time to test the system before Monday’s official launch.
Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony featured Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, representatives of Utah’s three congressional offices, and officials of the U.S. Department of Energy, the Utah Legislature, the state Department of Environmental Quality, EnergySolutions Inc., S&K Aerospace and Union Pacific Railroad. U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano of California also attended the event, along with representatives from Moab city, Grand County, and dozens of area residents.
The push to relocate the tailings away from the banks of the Colorado River, where the mill operated for almost three decades, was an almost 20-year effort on the part of local residents and, eventually, state and federal officials.
Noting the importance of local and state support, Michael Moore, the acting director of the Department of Energy’s Environmental Management Office for Small Sites, said the support is “shown by your presence here today.”
“We trust that the commitment you have made will continue, so we can continue to accelerate the project’s completion,” Moore said.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman told the crowd that officials and residents in Grand County “went nuclear” during his first visits to the Moab area as governor, pressing him to take a leading role in getting the tailings moved.
“We caught the dickens,” Huntsman said. “It was a matter of pride.” He thanked Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison and the community “for going, shall we say, going nuclear,” with the needed political pressure.
Napolitano recalled a visit to the tailings site with President Bill Clinton’s Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Richardson was skeptical, she said, when she told him to “get it out of here,” asking her why southern California was interested in the issue. “We drink the water,” she replied.
“Finally, the governor woke up,” Napolitano said referring to Huntsman’s predecessor, Mike Leavitt.
With the state and its representatives supporting the community’s effort, prospects improved. Clinton’s administration allowed Richardson to push enabling legislation through congress, she said.
“Every time we were about ready to give up, something happened,” said Bill Hedden, who led the charge on the Grand County Council in the early 1990’s.
Hedden cited a project done by the U.S. Geological Survey that was to test toxicity in the river using caged minnows. The minnows were to be tested for ailments over time, but they all died within one hour. People then realized that capping the tailings in place was not the solution, he said.
“The uranium mill operated for 28 years [ending in 1984]; it has taken another 25 years to reach this day,” Rep. Jim Matheson said in a statement presented by his local representative, Pam Juliano. “A loophole in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations allowed the company to select the least expensive control option – capping the tailings in place.”
In 1993, the NRC allowed the Atlas Corporation to make the pile three times higher than the agency’s regulations allowed, Matheson noted. “It was at this point that the Grand County Council intervened and demanded accountability for the fate of the area,” Matheson said in his statement.
The site was transferred from the NRC to the DOE in 2001. Following preparation of an environmental impact statement, the DOE issued its record of decision in September 2005 that the tailings would be removed by rail.