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Removal of uranium tailings begins near Moab

Residue from defunct mill poses a threat of leaking radioactive waste into river

The first trainload of radioactive uranium tailings has been taken from a dump site near Moab and moved to a disposal cell 30 miles away.

Cleanup of the 16 million-ton tailings pile was accelerated with a $108 million infusion from the Obama administration's economic-stimulus package last month.

The tailings, from the now-defunct Atlas uranium mill, have posed a threat of leaching radioactive waste into the Colorado River, prompting urgent requests for removal by Utah's congressional delegation.

An announcement Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Energy said the first trainload of tailings departed from the 439-acre site Monday for Crescent Junction. The tailings cover about 139 acres.

Donald Metzer, the Moab project's federal director, said the first tailing shipments are an operational test run of sorts to ensure all equipment is functioning properly.

A ceremonial ribbon-cutting early next month will mark the transition to full-time removal operations, in which trains of 88 containers will run each evening, Monday through Thursday.

To prepare for the receipt of the tailings, workers excavated a 25-foot-deep, 40-acre section of the Crescent Junction disposal cell. Workers also installed roads for hauling and made improvements to drainage and erosion-control systems.

S&K Aerospace spokeswoman Wendee Ryan said groundwater cleanup has been conducted at the Moab site since 2003, with 41 wells installed so far to remove contaminants that could reach the Colorado River.

Total cleanup costs are estimated at $1 billion, Ryan said, and the aim is to finish the work sometime in 2028. She said that timeline could be moved up because of the federal stimulus money.