SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — About 660 metric tons of radioactive material from Estonia traveled to a mill in southeast Utah last year, according to state inspection reports.
The mill is operated by Colorado-based Energy Fuels, which has a contract with an ore processing plant in Estonia.
The state of Utah had approved the shipments to the mill, sitting on U.S. Highway 191 between Blanding and White Mesa. The latter is a community belonging to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
The tribe worries about the chance for pollution.
“We don't ever get notification on what is being trucked to the mill,” said Scott Clow, the environmental programs director for the tribe, “which is a concern.”
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and their supporters have long argued that the facility was conceived of in the 1970s as a uranium processing mill; not a perpetual storage site.
The plant processes niobium and tantalum — metals found in cell phones and other electronics. Uranium is found in the byproducts.
Those byproducts traveled via ship to Houston. From there, said Curtis Moore, senior vice president of marketing for Energy Fuels, 58 trucks hauled the material about 1,100 miles to southeast Utah during the summer.
“Instead of throwing this stuff away,” Moore said, “and just wasting the uranium, we're able to recycle it at the White Mesa mill and recover the uranium, which we then sell to nuclear power plants.”
Only a fraction of the waste contains uranium, but at 660 metric tons of byproduct, Energy Fuels workers have plenty of material to sort through.
The mill monitors for air and water pollution. The Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control says the mill is in compliance with its permits and no problems were found during inspections.
“There should be no risk,” Moore said.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has long been concerned for the health of its 300 members living within sight of the mill, as well as the ecology of nearby Bears Ears National Monument. The tribe has received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop an epidemiological study for White Mesa residents.
“There was no place in Europe that could accept this waste,” said Tim Peterson, the cultural landscapes director at Grand Canyon Trust, which also opposes the shipments and storage at the mill and was the first to obtain the state inspection permits.
Peterson worries about precedents being set. The Estonia shipments were the mill’s first from Europe. It already has been approved to receive uranium-bearing ore from Japan.
“The White Mesa mill,” Peterson said, “is really becoming a target, or it could become a target for polluters all over the globe looking for a place to offload their radioactive waste.”
In its annual report to investors, released Wednesday, Energy Fuels said it received about $2.5 million in revenue from Estonia last year. Moore said the company receives income both from accepting the material and then selling the uranium, though neither he nor the company has disclosed how much money Energy Fuels makes in total.
“Certainly, becoming a world destination site for radioactive waste disposal is not something that appeals to the tribe,” Clow said.