Cameco to resume radioactive waste shipments

Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 11:39 AM
A spill of radioactive barium sulfate occurred on U.S. Highway 191 south of Blanding, Utah, in 2016. The waste was being delivered to the White Mesa Mill by Cameco Resources, which operates the Smith Ranch uranium mine in Wyoming.
Barium sulfate leaked from this container truck while delivering it to the White Mesa Mill south of Blanding, Utah.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that Wyoming-based Cameco-Power Resources has fixed its shipping problems that led to radioactive spills south of Blanding, Utah, and can resume shipments of barium sulfate to waste storage facilities.

However, the White Mesa Mill, which formerly accepted the waste then reported to regulators they were leaking en route, said Monday it is not accepting barium sulfate shipments from Cameco at this time, according to a company spokesman.

Twice in eight months — on Aug. 19, 2015, and March 28-29, 2016 — a Cameco container truck shipping barium sulfate from the Smith Ranch, Wyoming, uranium mine to the White Mesa Mill waste-storage facility leaked toxic contents en route. The March incident was the most severe, spilling a trail of the milky radioactive waste onto U.S. Highway 191 south of Blanding.

In August 2016, Cameco was ordered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend shipments pending an investigation and approved corrective action plan.

The investigation concluded Cameco failed to effectively package the waste and did not accurately describe the contents and quantity of loads in shipping papers.

In its corrective action plan, Cameco said it will begin using new containers designed for sludge and pond sediments and will place the waste in industrial bags before it goes into containers. Cameco also said it would add dunnage to fill voids in the load to keep it from shifting and would add improved absorbent polymer to keep free water from sloshing around.

At the time of the accidents, the company was misclassifying radioactive waste at a lower level than the actual shipment, the NRC found. Cameco said it has adjusted its testing methodology in order to classify radioactive waste accurately and would sample and test each waste shipment before transport rather than take limited samples. Officials also said the company has improved hazardous materials training.

After several reviews and inspections of corrective action plans, the company was given the green light to resume shipments last month.

Cameco’s “recent changes to its transportation program associated with the package selection process, waste classification and its pre-transportation packaging process have been reviewed and determined to be adequate,” Scott Morris, deputy regional administrator for the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, stated in an Aug. 25 letter to the company.

The letter further stated that the NRC has determined that Cameco’s “corrective action plan and changes made to prevent recurrence were adequate to ensure the safe transport of barium sulfate sludge and pond sediment to disposal facilities.”

The spills alarmed nearby residents of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, who often walk the highway where the spill occurred north of their reservation.

Cameco spokesman Gord Struthers said Friday that there was “definitely a problem” with its shipping practices, but they have taken extensive steps to correct them.

The company plans to resume shipments of barium sulfate to waste facilities in October and hopes that includes the White Mesa Mill. Gord said that its improved shipping procedures will prevent leaks and spills.

“We’re confident that with the corrective actions implemented, there will be no repeat accidents of 2015 and 2016,” Struthers said. “We have implemented extensive changes to our procedures to meet our expectations and those of our regulators and the public.”