Thursday, 19 March 2009

ODing on DU

The SL Tribune reported today that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has cleared EnergySolutions to store and dispose of depleted uranium at its Utah site. Great news, right? Depleted? Means less radioactive?

Well, yes and no. The USNRC decided to classify depleted uranium as a class A low-level waste, which may or may not be fair; "low-level waste" just means that DU doesn't qualify as high-level waste, mill tailings, transuranic waste or spent nuclear fuel. That said, that does not mean that DU is safe, or that it's a good thing that we Utahns will be getting a heaping helping (1.4 million tons! huzzah!) of it.

Depleted uranium is, indeed, less radioactive than other forms of uranium (thus the word "depleted," I would imagine). However, converting it for disposal is extremely dangerous:

Conversion of uranium hexafluoride to oxide or metal may involve hazardous chemicals in addition to UF6; specifically, ammonia (NH3) may be used in the process, and HF may be produced from the process. In the PEIS, the conversion accidents estimated to have the largest potential consequences were accidents involving the rupture of tanks containing either anhydrous HF or ammonia. Such an accident could be caused by a large earthquake.
A large earthquake, you say? In Utah? Well, I find that highly unlikely.

Once it has been processed from DU to a DU oxide, the stuff gets slightly safer, but still, I'm not a happy camper about this decision. Yet another victory for EnergySolutions, and yet another loss for Utah.

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