It's a $300 million question. What to do with 10 million tons of lethally radioactive soils perched on the edge of the Colorado River outside of Moab?

As state and federal regulators grapple with who will be responsible for the massive cleanup of the Atlas uranium mill site, a Wyoming company says it has a solution that should make everyone happy: Move the tailings to the company's mothballed uranium mill, called Shootaring Canyon, just north of Lake Powell in Garfield County.

"Since Shootaring is a licensed mill with a permitted tailings facility, it is a logical place to relocate the Atlas tailings," said Hal Herron, president of Plateau Resources, which owns the mill and and a nearby uranium mine.

The move would also eliminate the need for the construction of a disposal site for the radioactive waste, and it would eliminate the costs associated with monitoring a new waste dump. Herron estimated the project would generate more than 200 jobs in Garfield and Grand counties during the course of the six- to eight-year cleanup project.

Plateau Resources has requested from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission an amendment to their Shootaring Canyon license that would allow the company to accept the Atlas waste tailings.

Any contract to remove the mill tailings from the Atlas site would be a boon to the Riverton, Wyo.-based company that has kept its Shootaring Canyon mill on

standby status — at a cost of about $1 million a year — pending a rebound in uranium prices.

State and federal officials are negotiating over the ultimate fate of the Atlas mill tailings. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has proposed a deal that would transfer jurisdiction of the site from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the DOE, which would fund the massive cleanup with royalties from oil and gas production.

The NRC has proposed capping the tailings in place, something vehemently opposed by state and local officials.

The Richardson deal, which has the support of congressional delegations from Utah and downriver states like Arizona and California, is still pending in Congress. The cleanup is expected to cost somewhere between $150 million and $300 million.

Utah officials have for years proposed the tailings be moved by rail to a site near the Moab airport about 15 miles north of town where the waste could be disposed in underground cells that pose no risk to the Colorado River, humans or wildlife.

The Shootaring Canyon site would save the cost of constructing the storage cells — the cells are already built at the mill — but the cost of transporting the waste by truck almost 200 miles to the Shootaring Canyon site near Ticaboo would be considerably greater.

Still, company officials say the proposal makes economic sense.

However, environmentalists are wary about the proposal, wondering if it isn't a backdoor attempt by the company to take mill tailings for reprocessing. A competitor, International Uranium, has been authorized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to recycle mill tailings at its White Mesa mill near Blanding.

The state unsuccessfully argued that the reprocessing was a sham for storage of radioactive waste, something that should be authorized by state regulators. Reprocessing is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"We want the tailings moved from Moab, but it seems an expensive proposition to move them to Shootaring Canyon," said Steve Erickson of the watchdog group Utah Downwinders. "It does raise some eyebrows as to what they are really up to. I know we will be watching it closely."

The Shootaring Canyon mill, completed in 1982, was the last uranium mill constructed in the United States. After a test run of 60 days, the mill was shut down and has been maintained in standby status ever since. Some 200,000 tons of uranium ore containing 600,000 pounds of uranium are now stockpiled at the site.


You can reach Jerry D. Spangler by e-mail at spang@desnews.com