At least twice over the past two years, radioactive sludge has leaked from a truck traveling between an eastern Wyoming uranium mine and White Mesa, Utah, south of Blanding.
En route, the trucks also crossed part of Colorado. Both of those incidents show inadequate safety measures.
In the second incident, barium sulfate, a mining byproduct, splattered the container and the inside of the truck and leaked onto a quarter mile of U.S. Highway 491 in Utah. Radiation levels there exceeded legal limits.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission identified other potential problems, including the way the radioactivity of the sludge was tested and documented.
But Cameco Resources, the mine owner and transporter of the materials, argued against even a fine. The company said it had corrected the problem and had taken measures to prevent future spills of the low-level waste.
The mill at White Mesa, owned by Colorado-based Energy Fuels Resources and located on private land just outside a reservation boundary, is the only active uranium mill in the country, and also processes low-grade radioactive materials from across the country. Waste material is stored in containment ponds, at least one of which is leaking.
During the Cold War, the uranium industry and the federal government were lax, to say the least, in their safeguards for Native American uranium workers in the Four Corners region. Occupational risks were explained inadequately, if at all, and when Congress awarded compensation to miners, millers and truckers for the radiation-related illnesses they suffered, many had to pay attorneys to reconstruct radiation-exposure records.
So it’s not surprising that wastes are stored near White Mesa – not in the backyard of anyone with any political clout – nor that environmental and personal protections may not be adequate. That is not right, and Ute Mountain Ute officials are justified in pressing the issue.
The residents and workers of White Mesa deserve all the protections that would be required in a more affluent and densely populated area. Cameco should be held to far more rigorous standards, and every drop of radioactive sludge leaving its mine in Wyoming should be accounted for when the shipment reaches White Mesa.