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About Utah: Depleted uranium not that scary

You know that old joke about going to a fight and a hockey game breaking out?

Well, I went to a discussion about nuclear waste the other night and a hockey game DIDN'T break out.

Nobody slugged anybody.

There was no brawl.

No one even raised his voice.

The event was hosted by Tooele County. Jeff Coombs, deputy director of the county's health department, acted as moderator.

About 30 people showed up at the meeting room in downtown Tooele to listen to an epidemiologist, a physicist and a chemical engineer talk about the health risks and other side effects associated with depleted uranium, or DU as it's more commonly called.

DU, of course, is at the center of the current nuclear waste debate:

Should DU from other parts of the country, and other countries, be allowed into the EnergySolutions waste facility at Clive in remote Tooele County? How radioactive is DU? Will it give us cancer? Will it make us sick? Will it make us look like Martians? Does it constitute a clear and present danger? What are the ramifications for the future?

One by one, the three invited panelists addressed these and other questions.

First to speak was the chemical engineer, Noel de Nevers. Then came the radiological and health physicist, Blaine Howard. He was followed by Dr. John Contreras, the epidemiologist.

None is affiliated with EnergySolutions or the waste operation at Clive — or, for that matter, with Tooele County.

They talked about where DU comes from, its relative level of radioactivity and the health hazards it poses.

As the meeting wore on, one common theme became clear: DU definitely does not scare these scientists.

In their view, it's sure not Public Enemy No. 1.

On the danger scale, they seemed to rank it somewhere just above or just below eating too much sugar.

To summarize the presentations:

De Nevers: He explained that the radioactivity level of DU is low — much lower than the ore it comes from. However, he cautioned, if you eat it, breathe it or inject it, it will hurt you.

Sound bite: "Keep it covered, don't let your children play around it, and don't build cities on top of it."

Howard: He explained that natural radiation is everywhere, it's a part of the Earth we live in, and in small doses it can actually be beneficial. He said a visitor to a DU depository will be exposed to about the same amount of increased radiation as an airline passenger on a flight from Los Angeles to New York.

Sound bite: "If we have concerns with it, it's something other than health."

Contreras: Citing his personal study of more than 100 journals that have measured the relationship between DU and various diseases and illnesses, he reported that exposure to high levels of DU has not been shown to cause cancer, skin damage, headaches, depression, reproductive limitations or myriad other health problems.

Sound bite: "For the most part, the health effects are so low as to be statistically undetectable."

Not only was the testimony of the three experts remarkably benign, so was the audience reaction.

When the panelists sat down and questions were solicited, no one refuted anything or anyone.

Maybe it was because the presentations made so much sense, or maybe the anti-nuclear people had something else going on that night.

Finally, one member of the audience raised his hand.

"So why exactly is anyone opposed to putting this stuff in the armpit of Tooele County?" he asked.

Hey, that's what he called it, and he lives there.

Well, said de Nevers, "I think when you say radioactive, red flags go up."

That's what I thought, too. Only for some reason, they didn't go up this time.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.