Moab UMTRA Plays Russian Roulette With Nuclear Waste
Late May 2011 found me in Moab, Utah once again. While there, one of my projects was to monitor potential flooding along the Colorado River. Previous research and scientific findings indicate that a Colorado River flood at Moab is more likely now than in any recent time.
As temperatures swing, drought prevails and dust storms roam the Four Corners, a heavy spring snowpack, and a quick thaw could create catastrophic flooding at Moab. To be sure, most of the town lies on higher ground, well above the paleo-floodplain. Other than a few commercial buildings and several campgrounds, the greatest risk is flooding at the Moab Pile.
During the Cold War years, uranium mines near Moab fed radioactive ore to the Atlas Uranium Mill. Using large quantities of highly corrosive acid, the mill concentrated the ore and then shipped it to the federal government, which had a monopoly on all things radioactive. Since all Americans hypothetically benefited from the nuclear deterrent known as “assured mutual destruction”, so too should we all pay to cleanup the mess abandoned by the nuclear industry.
Remnants of the Atlas Uranium Mill and a colossal mountain of radioactive tailings together make up the Moab Pile. Since 2009, excavators have filled and sealed steel containers with vast amounts of the pile’s radioactive earth. From Moab to Crescent Junction, the material takes a free ride via the Union Pacific Railroad's "Train of Pain". Actually, the ride is not free. Through our federal tax dollars, all U.S. Persons pay for its removal.
By late May 2011, the Colorado River approached flood-stage in Grand Junction, Colorado. As the flood surged downstream, I wanted to see if the Moab Pile was as vulnerable as paleo-flood surveys indicated. Over a two-day period, I visited several sites on each side of the river and also stood above the flow on the bicycle bridge. Viewed from any angle, water reached higher on the riverbanks than I had ever seen. According to some reports, flow rates have not been this high since 1983, when Lake Powell filled to capacity and forced operators to open the Glen Canyon Dam spill gates for the first time.
From the bicycle bridge, looking downstream, the U.S. 191 Highway Bridge appeared to skim low over the water. With its gracefully arched concrete supports, there was still some headroom for the water to flow. Just south of the highway bridge, the Canyonlands by Night buildings looked vulnerable to me. The riverbanks there were high enough to allay imminent fears, but their lack of reinforcement made for inadequate protection in the event of a larger flow. In any event, I would not want to own their flood insurance company.
I stopped at Canyonlands by Night to see if they needed a live webcam. A representative said, “No, we already have one”. To myself, I thought, “Maybe you do, but it is not easy to find on the internet”. There was an excursion boat tethered to the floating dock, but otherwise the grounds appeared deserted. Standing close to the river, I could picture two alternate scenarios. In the local version, the flood subsided and life in Moab went on as usual. In the Hollywood version, the snowpack in the high country melted in days, not months. The silent power of the Colorado River flood then enveloped the Canyonlands by Night property and swept it away.
Continuing my river tour, I turned off U.S. 191 at Utah State Route 279, better known as the Potash Road. After skirting the now diminished Moab Pile, I headed downstream. Despite nearly a decade of attempted extermination using the Tamarisk Beetle, large, half-dead tamarisk shielded every river view. Soon, I turned around and drove back to where I could see the Moab Pile, the Colorado River and the Scott Matheson Wetlands, all in one panorama. From a distance of about one half mile, the churning brown, river appeared to lap at the base of the Moab Pile. The following day, I drove downriver on the opposite bank, along the Kane Creek Road. With the Matheson Wetlands then to my right, the Moab Pile stood out on the horizon, along the far riverbank. Although the river was turgid and brown, its wide channel in that area kept the river in check.
Writing now from California in late June 2011, I must rely on news reports and internet searches to keep up with the story. While Googling variations of, “Colorado River Flood Moab 2011”, I found a number of articles that touched upon the subject. None, however, told what I considered to be a complete story. As I have pieced it together, here is what transpired since I left Moab in early June.
Both the Green River and the Colorado River continued to rise until at least mid-June. Grand Junction, Colorado experienced significant flooding and bank-erosion, although the river made a long, slow peak there. Downstream, near Moab, the Red Cliffs Lodge experienced bank erosion and flooding of temporary structures in what they call their “gravel area”. According to on-scene reports, the river never approached the hotel or its guest rooms. The Colorado River bicycle and highway bridges at Moab stood firmly above the river. Canyonlands by Night remained dry, if not high above the river crest. The Moab Pile still sits sedately in its old place, although water backed-up into adjacent drainage channels.
In the spring of 2011, what saved the Moab Pile? The answer may lie in the Matheson Wetlands, which were a softer target than the Moab Pile. Wildfires swept hundreds of acres near the river in 2009, with another sixty acres burned in June 2011. By late June, the river flooded the Matheson Wetlands, submerging much of the recent burn area. Root structures weakened in the 2009 fire now let go altogether. Without further human intervention, the latest fire became the lucky break that we needed. If two separate fires caused by human carelessness had not weakened the plant structures along the river, the wetlands might have held their banks. As it was, they absorbed the flood over a wide flood plain. If they had not accepted the flood as they did, a rampaging Colorado River might have projected its hydraulic power toward the reeking hulk of the Moab Pile.
In order to protect the Moab Pile, UMTRA crews have removed some material from its leading edge. UMTRA has constructed several small protective berms, as well. However, the paleo-history of floods along the Colorado River at Moab indicates that the Moab Pile remains vulnerable to the "three hundred year flood", if it should happen during the next decade. During that decade of tailings removal, there is a one-in-thirty chance that a flood of up to ten times the current 32,000 cfs flow rate will hit Moab. Picture a wall of water forty or fifty feet higher than the new highway bridge as it sweeps out of the Colorado Riverway Canyon, and then on towards the Moab Pile.
Had the Upper Colorado Basin snowpack been deeper last winter or had it melted faster, the 2011 story might have ended quite differently. We who live downstream and depend on the Colorado River for our water supply were lucky this time. Just as easily, it could have gone the other way. In a Fukushima-like, scenario, some or all of the Moab Pile could now lie as radioactive mud on the bottom of Lake Powell. If a mega flood were to fill Lake Powell, operators at Glen Canyon Dam would open the flood gates and sweep that cloud of radioactive mud on towards Lake Meade. Such an event would likely rank as the number one human caused disaster in all of recorded history. For lack of uncontaminated water, the Desert Southwest would face a human out-migration fifteen to thirty times greater than what occurred during the disappearance of the Anasazi.
Recent news reports stated that by 2019, the Moab Pile could be moved. The engineers and workers at the Moab UMTRA project are so efficient that they haul more radioactive-waste more quickly than ever before. among other things, they have learned to fill huge rectangular containers almost to the brim. Even though an initial infusion of federal stimulus money is now gone, the original twenty-year plan could culminate in less than fifteen years. Despite the lucrative contracts to remove it, no one wants to hang around a pile of radioactive waste any longer than necessary.
The “speed is of the essence” mentality at Moab UMTRA increases our collective risk. The highest priority should be to protect the pile from flood damage and dispersal. Recent flood mitigation at the site proved sufficient for this year's 30-year flood. Once sufficient flood mitigation is in place to protect against the 300-year flood, removal could again become the top priority. Otherwise, the unprotected status of the Moab Pile will require that we, in the Southwestern United States dodge the “nuclear bullet” each spring until at least 2019.
Check back here in 2020 to see if disaster struck. If we are writing our articles from upstream of the current Moab Pile, you will know that current plans did not go well. If we are then writing from downstream in sunny Southern California, you will know that we all won the game of “Nuclear Waste Roulette” now playing out along the Colorado River at Moab.
Email James McGillis