GORE — The last of 511 truckloads of uranium- and thorium-contaminated sludge from the long-defunct Sequoyah Fuels uranium conversion plant at Gore hit the road this week.
A Utah mill, roughly 1,000 miles away, has taken 10,000 tons of the nuclear waste to re-mill and sell the uranium, the Cherokee Nation, State of Oklahoma and Department of Environmental Quality announced Friday.
“It’s all gone as of this week,” Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation secretary of natural resources, said in advance of a Friday-morning news conference. “This concludes 15 years of legal wrangling between the state, the tribe and Sequoyah Fuels. I’m very pleased to see this done because there were many times we thought we might never get to this point.”
Kerr-McGee Corp. opened the uranium conversion facility, under Sequoyah Fuels Corporation, in 1970 on a 600-acre site located on the east bank of the Illinois River near its confluence with the Arkansas River about three miles southeast of Gore.
The facility processed yellowcake uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors. After a fatal explosion in 1986 and resulting lawsuits, Kerr-McGee sold the facility to General Atomics Technologies Inc. in 1988. Extreme groundwater and soil contamination found at the plant later led to its closing in 1993.
Removal of the contaminated materials, called “uranium-contaminated sludge” in court documents, is a major step in decades of legal and technical hurdles in the decommission and reclamation of the area, which continue.
“We are celebrating the fact that all of the highly contaminated material is gone. That is a huge victory, and we are all super excited about it,” Hill said. “The most important part of this is that it was a joint project of the state and the Cherokee Nation. The Attorney General’s Office has been right there with us, and this shows that when we are all going in the same direction, we are a potent team.”
Deputy Attorney General Dara Derryberry echoed that sentiment.
“The result we’ve reached surely shows the strength behind the partnership between the state of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation. It goes back many years, and it’s a top priority for our office to foster and grow that relationship,” Derryberry said. “It’s also a top priority for our office to have clean land, air and water for Oklahomans, so we consider this an important a step in the right direction for the Cherokee Nation, the city of Gore and Oklahomans generally.”
Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. drew an enthusiastic round of applause with the announcement Friday at a traditional Cherokee hog fry at the Gore Community Center.
“It is a historic day for the Cherokee Nation and the state of Oklahoma. Our lands are safe again, now that we have removed a risk that would have threatened our communities forever,” he said.
“Generations from now I don’t know if they will remember what we did here today but I know they will feel it. They will feel it because they live in an area that is not plagued by toxic waste.”
In a 2004 settlement agreement with the state and Cherokee Nation, Sequoyah Fuels agreed to spend up to $3.5 million for relocation of the solid wastes. While a location was sought, the material was bagged, covered and stored on concrete slabs at the site, where it sat for more than a decade.
The removal was raised in court again in late 2016 after the company decided there was no place to take the material and proposed to bury it in a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission-approved storage pit at the site.
“We didn’t want it buried right there at the confluence of the Illinois and Arkansas rivers,” Hill said.
The state and Cherokee Nation filed for a restraining order and won in early 2017. In granting the order, Sequoyah County District Judge Jeff Payton directed the interested parties to meet face-to-face weekly to find a solution.
“For almost a year we met every week in Tulsa,” said Pam Dizikes, supervising attorney for the DEQ Land Protection Division. “I think it had its intended effect.”
Dizikes said the materials were contaminated with uranium and thorium at such high levels that there was value to re-milling it to separate the materials “to be resold and used as they should be used,” she said.
It was indeed difficult to find a mill that could take the material. “The market for uranium and thorium is up and down, and when the market was down, the few mills capable of processing it were closed,” she said.
The White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, was the only site in the United States capable of handling the material.
Still, the mill had to upgrade and secure new licensing from the state of Utah, Dizikes said. That license was obtained in late 2017, and a contract to take the material was finalized.
“It didn’t start moving off the site until early this year, and they’ve been sending about 20 truckloads a week,” she said.
Every step in the process required examination and approval, legally and in the field, under rules set by the NRC and carried out by Sequoyah Fuels with monitoring by the DEQ, she said.
Dizikes said the bags, which weighed 1 ton to 2 tons each, were inspected when loaded at the plant and when unloaded at the Utah mill.
“Sequoyah Fuels has been responsible in the way they bagged the materials,” she said. “They’ve had a remarkably good record on secure transport.”
Hill noted that having the materials sent away and to be reclaimed is a double win in that it becomes, essentially, recycled material for commercial use that won’t have to be mined from other locations and that this material won’t have to be stored in another cell somewhere.
“It’s the best you could make out of a bad situation,” she said.
In all, the removal costs neared $4.4 million, Dizikes said. The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council approved covering costs above the agreed-upon $3.5 million from Sequoyah Fuels. The state is pursuing cleanup funds available through a trust related to past contamination settlements with Kerr-McGee subsidiaries. That award, expected to be near $550,000, will be forwarded from the state to the Nation to help cover the costs, she said.
With the contaminated soils removed, the next concern is groundwater and other aspects of the 2004 agreement, such as removal of the facilities, before the area is surrendered to the Department of Energy. NRC reports dating back to 1997 first noted reclamation end-dates of 2012, then 2020.
Dizikes said she wouldn’t hazard a guess at an end date for the Sequoyah Fuels cleanup.
Groundwater monitoring wells have been in place at the site for years but water quality, and other aspects of the 2004 agreement, are still to be addressed, she said.
“It made sense to remove the source of contamination before addressing groundwater concerns,” she said. “Sometimes the quality of groundwater rebounds after sources are removed. They will continue to monitor for a couple of years, but to the extent that it doesn’t (rebound) they will have to develop plans for remediating groundwater,” she said.