16 million tons of uranium mill tailings moving away from Colorado River site
Crews have taken the first bites out of the old uranium mill-tailings pile in Moab, Utah, beginning a yearslong process of transferring it far from the Colorado River.
Abut 630,000 tons will have been moved from Moab to the disposal cell near Crescent Junction by year’s end, said Wendee Ryan of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Energy Department and its contractor, Energy Solutions Corp., began moving the tailings pile this year.
Moab residents and downstream water providers lobbied for years to have the 16-million-ton pile of mill tailings moved from its spot along the north bank of the Colorado River to a cell up against the Bookcliff Mountains at Crescent Junction that is deemed less likely to contaminate the river.
The pile is being moved by train from Moab to the disposal cell 30 miles north.
It takes about 80 minutes for the train to travel to Crescent Junction with a full load of tailings, Ryan said.
“It’s very slow and deliberate,” she said.
There, the contents of each 33-ton and 40-ton container placed in the cell are marked via Global Positioning System, said Fred Smith of Energy Solutions.
The cell, in which native earth has been scoured out to form a half-mile-wide pit, will be filled with tailings and then recovered with the native earth.
Once the tailings pile has been moved, it will fill a cell about a half-mile wide and a mile long, Smith said.
The cold temperatures of recent weeks slowed the removal process a bit because moisture in the tailings wouldn’t evaporate as quickly, Ryan said.
“When there’s less evaporation in the tailings, it takes longer to condition them to an optimum moisture content” for compaction at the Crescent Junction cell, Ryan said.
When the red containers are lined up outside the cell for emptying, they’re visible from Interstate 70.
The cell itself is fenced off, and a retired uranium miner, Gilbert Randall, greets visitors at the main entry.
Working on the surface is fine by him, Randall said.
“The next time I go under,” he joked, “it’s going to be permanent.”