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Utah mill linked to Arizona uranium mining takes 136 tons of Japanese nuclear waste

The White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, Utah.
Gabriel Pietrorazio
The White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, Utah.

The White Mesa Mill in southeastern Utah is where uranium ore from the Pinyon Plain Mine in Arizona will soon be trucked through the Navajo Nation. Meanwhile, that same facility has also recently received waste materials from a much farther location, one that is frustrating another tribe.

Energy Fuels, the mill’s owner, is welcoming lots of waste all the way from Japan.

Despite no domestic production, Japan has relied on uranium imports from countries, like Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan.

Hajime Matsukubo is secretary general of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an anti-nuclear public interest organization. His country is the world’s third-largest consumer of uranium, only behind the U.S. and China.

“But in Japan, there is no final repository for uranium waste,” Matsukubo said. “So they are finding some ways to solve this issue.”

The solution: Send it somewhere else.

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency, or JAEA, paid 189 million Japanese yen, or roughly $1.2 million, to send 136 tons of mixed materials in at least 10 half-sized shipping containers to a port in Everett, Washington.

Japanese trading company Sojitz had been hired to deliver it. Then, metal barrels traveled more than 1,100 miles from the Pacific Coast to the White Mesa Mill.

Matsukubo mentioned these “highly contaminated” materials came from Ningyo-Toge Environmental Technology Center and Tono Mine, which has been undergoing closure activities.

“[JAEA] says uranium waste is a resource and, ‘In the name of recycling, we export that,’” said Matsukubo. “Yes, [Energy Fuels] can recover this waste, very tiny amount; only one ton.”

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s community of White Mesa, near the mill, is upset.

“It was important enough for them to take it out of their backyard, so then that burden is shifted to folks in southeast Utah, folks in White Mesa,” said Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes director at Grand Canyon Trust. “We think that’s an environmental justice problem.”

Entrance to White Mesa Mill in southeastern Utah.
Gabriel Pietrorazio
Entrance to White Mesa Mill in southeastern Utah.

These materials arrived almost four years after Energy Fuels notified the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control that it intended to accept and process these materials originating from the Land of the Rising Sun.

“And the way that this happens, legally, is they take minute amounts of uranium, extract it and then dispose of the remainder,” Grand Canyon Trust staff attorney Chaitna Sinha said. “They’re able to say that they’re processing rather than waste disposal, and under those parameters, they are allowed to do it with their current license.”

Grand Canyon Trust estimates Energy Fuels has received more than 700 million pounds of materials at the mill. More than 6 million pounds of uranium has been recycled from its alternate feed program, according to Curtis Moore, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development at Energy Fuels.

But Moore insistently pushes against this “radioactive waste” characterization.

“Contrary to the image activists try to portray, this material is not very radioactive – no more radioactive than anything else we process at the mill,” Moore wrote in a statement to KJZZ News. “They dishonestly call the material ‘radioactive waste’ in order to conjure images of spent nuclear fuel, melted down nuclear cores, things that glow.”

Instead, Moore named these materials: Uranium ore, core samples from natural uranium deposits, resins and charcoal, soil that contains natural uranium. He stated they’re “all-natural, unenriched uranium, and relatively benign material.”

This international shipment marks the second time in nearly two decades that JAEA has shipped radioactive materials to the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah. The agency paid $5.8 million to unload 500 tons of uranium-contaminated soil in 2005.

When asked whether a deal between JAEA and Energy Fuels amounted to 189 million Japanese yen, or $1.2 million, Moore told KJZZ News: “That sounds about right.”

It’s a business, after all.

“Whether the recycling involves plastic, glass, electronics, paper, or uranium, the products that result from the recycling don’t always economically support the activity on their own,” he wrote. “However, just because a company gets paid, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recycle things, or that something nefarious is going on.”

“The alternative is to just throw everything away and go mine and extract more resources,” Moore added, “which most people would not consider to be environmentally or socially responsible, even for uranium.”

For mill engineer Steve Snyder, he sees this as an economic opportunity: “Why not process it, take the uranium, and we’ll produce a usable product out of it, and we’re not just burying it?"