I-Team: Green River Radioactive Site Getting Cleaned Up - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: Green River Radioactive Site Getting Cleaned Up

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LAS VEGAS -- A proposal to build a nuclear power plant in Utah could have a major impact on southern Nevada's water supply, since the plant would consume 50,000 acre feet of water per year -- water that would not flow into the Colorado River.

But there's another nuclear-related controversy in Utah with direct implications for Nevada. A gigantic pile of radioactive garbage is leaking into the river, a story the I-Team has been covering for 10 years.

When we first started reporting about the gigantic pile of muck back in the late 90's, there was little appetite for moving it away from the river. The most the government wanted to do was put a cap on it and leave it where it was. But that solution was pretty weak, and finally the huge mess is being moved away from the water supply.

Environmentalist Sarah Fields has waited years to see the massive earth-moving project on the banks of the Colorado. The target is a mountain of uranium tailings -- up to 16 million tons of trouble.

For decades, it has stood out like a sore thumb in the picturesque canyon country around Moab, Utah, a Mecca for hikers, bikers, and rafters whose dollars keep the local economy humming along.

The tailings pile is left over from the uranium boom of the 1950's. Every single day it leaches up to 120,000 gallons of radioactive gunk into the river, including arsenic and mercury. The problem is bad enough to create a zone of death in the Colorado River. If a catastrophic flood occurred, the entire pile could be washed into the river at once, so the muck simply had to go.

"It's a relief," said Fields. "It is a continuous source of uranium and ammonia and other contaminants going into the Colorado River and it would stay here forever."

It took years of pressure from environmental groups, and a few states, to coax the federal government into cleaning up the mess. The only western water officials who did not raise a fuss about the threat to the water supply were those of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, whose second in command told us 10 years ago not to worry about any radioactive material entering the river from the pile because it would "dissipate."

"Right. It's just really magic," said Fields. "It would be really tragic if it did go into the river. The floodplain of the Colorado River is not a secure place."

It will take 20 years and billions of dollars to move the entire pile. Already, two million tons of contaminated goo have been loaded into containers, hauled by trucks up to a rail line, and sent by train to Grand County, Utah for burial. Stimulus funds have paid for crews to work 24 hours a day, but that extra money is unlikely to be renewed. Residents worry the entire budget could be axed. The loss of so many workers would be tough on the Moab economy, but leaving the pile in place would be worse.

"It is a jolt for the economy, but I don't think that is the best economic model to create a big mess somewhere that 50 years down the pike you have to clean up, particularly at taxpayers expense," said Fields.

And what of the new storage site? Might that be a disaster in the making? The folks who live in the area are not exactly frightened.

"I will tell you that the native soil we are standing on is probably more radioactive than those tailings," said Mike McCandless with Emory County Economic Development.

Utah is uranium country. Residents have lived with natural radiation all their lives, so opposition to the tailings was minimal in Grand County. Thirteen miles away in Green River, locals are ready to welcome the first nuclear power plant to be built in the U.S. in decades. The tiny town is about to become ground zero in the national debate about nuclear power.

Opponents have tried to convince the locals that poisoned tailings are one of the least harmful legacies of nuclear energy, that the spent fuel can't be stored safely, and that a nuke plant would use too much water, endanger the river and imperil their future.

"We have had a bunch of people who were concerned and held a hearing basically trying to convince the community that you don't want this. And I don't know a better way to word this, but they were run out of town on a rail. They were basically asked to leave and worry about their own town," said McCandless.

SNWA has said in the past that the levels of radiation in Lake Mead are too low to even worry about -- way below federal standards -- and that they saw no need to make a big stink about the Moab muck pile since soundbites don't solve anything.

Support in Utah for the nuclear power plant is pretty strong, and if Nevada isn't involved in the debate yet, we'd better get a seat at the table pretty soon.

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