Updated Jan. 5, 2021: On Dec. 27, 2020, the President signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which included reauthorization of the Grand Junction, Colorado, Disposal Site until Sept. 30, 2031. The Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management will continue to operate the disposal cell and plan closure activities to meet the new extended timeline.
At the height of the Cold War, Grand Junction, Colorado, was home to a uranium mill that processed the element for use in nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry. In 19 years of operation, the Climax Uranium Mill produced 2.2 million tons of radioactive mill tailings, a sand-like material left over from crushing ore to extract uranium. The mill tailings were considered ideal for construction materials at the time, and local citizens and contractors utilized them in construction, mixing the tailings with concrete or compacting them with other materials for structural fill in projects across town.
At the time, no one thought the tailings could be harmful to human health.
For nearly two decades, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) helped clean up the pockets of contamination in Grand Junction, storing what had been collected at the Grand Junction, Colorado, Disposal Site, which is now managed by the DOE Office of Legacy Management (LM).
“It seems crazy to consider today, but most people — even scientists — didn’t understand the dangers of this radioactive material,” said Gary Baur, a construction manager who oversaw the placement of radioactive material in the Grand Junction disposal site, and later went on to serve as the site’s lead until his retirement in October 2018.
Located about 18 miles southeast of the city, the disposal site contains a cell designed to encapsulate and isolate contaminated materials. DOE completed cleanup in the community in 1998, and LM now oversees the site, which is the only government-owned, noncommercial disposal facility in the country still open to accept uranium mill tailings.
Now, due to expiring authorization, the facility must be permanently shut down no later than 2023 but will need to cease receiving material in Sept. 30, 2021, to prepare for permanent closure. The facility has sufficient capacity to stay in operation until 2048 based on annual averages. If additional service life is authorized, the facility could continue to provide a permanent resting place for any contamination yet to be discovered in Grand Junction or surrounding areas on the Colorado Plateau. After the facility is permanently closed, disposal of future material must be transported to a licensed, privately run commercial disposal facility more than 400 miles away, where disposal would come with a fee.
“There is still residual radioactive material in the Grand Valley community that is part of the nation’s nuclear legacy, but how much is left, we don’t really know,” said Bill Frazier, site manager of the Grand Junction disposal site. “While DOE no longer has the authorization to clean the material up, the LM team can protectively dispose of it at the Grand Junction disposal site at no direct cost to the community.”
DOE was ultimately successful in cleaning up over 4,000 properties in the Grand Junction and Mesa County regions, despite obstacles in finding the contamination, as the radioactive tailings used in construction were often applied underground. It is both ubiquitous and invisible, which is why it continues to be discovered across Grand Junction today. In some cases, private landowners declined the DOE cleanup opportunity offered decades earlier, leaving current landowners to deal with the consequences. In other cases, city and county workers find the material when repairing roads, sidewalks, or other utilities.
Overall, in past years approximately 1,000 cubic yards of low-level radioactive material are identified and collected across Grand Junction each year, or enough to fill about 5,000 bathtubs. The material was temporarily stored with the Grand Junction Utility Department until the local government transports it to the Grand Junction disposal site for permanent storage.
Prepping for closure
Engineers estimated that all the radioactive material left over from Cold War activities in the Colorado Plateau region would be removed by 1998. Legislation was created to align with this timeline, authorizing DOE to support community clean up until then, and requiring the site to close when it was expected cleanup would be complete. But the radioactive material remained for various reasons, including the hidden nature of the material and residents’ resistance to clean up. In response, Congress extended the site’s original 1998 closure date three times, most recently deciding that the site would remain open until it fills to capacity, or September 2023, whichever comes first. Today, the site’s cell is approximately 95% full.
LM has already begun preparations for the site’s potential closure, notifying local stakeholders of the upcoming developments. A change in law would be required to prevent closure, and there is currently a bill in the U.S. Senate (S. Rept. 116-98) that would keep the site open until 2031.
However, no matter the outcome, LM is committed to continuing its stewardship of the site.
“At the very least, LM will submit a long-term plan for monitoring and maintaining the closed Grand Junction disposal site,” said Frazier. “So that in the long run, the site remains protective of human health and the environment.”