Millions of people across the West depend on the Colorado River for drinking water and irrigation, and that's what's made cleaning up the site of an old uranium mill in southern Utah a high-priority project. Many other countries have the same concern. Their representatives got a close-up look last week at how the United States is handling that project.
Don Metzler showed a group of engineers and government officials from all over the world how the U.S. Department of Energy is removing tailings from the old Atlas mill site next to the Colorado River in Moab, telling them the finely-powdered rock left over after uranium is extracted from ore have the consistency of peanut butter. The tailings have a low level of radioactivity, just above the background level in the natural environment. It's their proximity to the river that increases the level of concern.
Metzler oversees the project, and says the technical challenges of dealing with millions of tons of goopy, radioactive mess are significant, but they can be managed.
"We know what to do," Metzler says, "but it's not as simple as just loading dirt in a container and taking it to Crescent Junction. It's so easy for people to say, 'That's just a big dirt-moving job.' It's more complicated than that."
In all, 20 countries from Asia, Africa, Europe and South America were represented on the tour organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Aboard their tour bus, the visitors saw how the fine, wet tailings are mixed with coarse sand from other areas of the site, dried to a uniform moisture content and loaded into shipping containers that fit on the back of a truck. By the time they're hauled up the hill to the railroad tracks, the containers have been washed clean. There's no blowing dust as they're loaded onto freight cars and hauled to the permanent disposal site 30 miles to the north. There's no groundwater at that site, and it's a long way from the Colorado.
Russel Edge, who helped to organize the tour for the IAEA, says the effort to protect the Colorado is particularly interesting to the former Soviet republics in central Asia.
"Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, they're neighbors," he points out. "And there is a river, a drainage basin, called the Syr Darya River, which drains this region. And upstream, much of the Soviet mining effort was in the upper reaches of this river, and so the downstream neighbors are very concerned about the legacy mill tailings."
Malzorgata Sneve joined the tour from Norway. She's worked with the Russian government to clean up contaminated sites near their border in the Arctic. She says the Utah site appears to be managed very well. Just as important, she says it appears to have support from the local population.
"Even if you have the best technical solutions," she says, "and people do not believe that it's good, then still you have a problem. So the public perception is very important part."
Sarah Fields of the Moab-based environmental group Uranium Watch says the project does have strong support in the local community. She says their biggest worry is that it's not moving fast enough.
"The community has really been concerned that because of decreases in funding, there's only going to be one train [a day] now," she says, "and they're only going to move the tailings nine months of the year. They'll be closing the project down during the winter."
Early on, the Moab project got $108 million from President Obama's economic stimulus bill and it moved at a much faster pace. Right now, it's getting about $31 million a year. It's moved about 5.4 million tons of tailings out of the 16 million left at the site when the Atlas uranium mill shut down in 1984. But it's only one-third finished, and the funding has to be renewed in each year's federal budget. The Department of Energy estimates the tailings won't all be gone before 2025.
Before they left the site, the international visitors crowded together to get their picture taken with the red cliffs of Moab in the background, aware as perhaps no other group of visitors that the production of uranium for weapons and power plants generations ago has left behind a legacy all over the world that will take still more generations to clean up.