Sale of uranium fertilizer blocked
by Duff Wilson
Seattle Times staff reporter

State officials yesterday red-tagged a nuclear-fuel maker near Hanford to stop it from distributing used acid as farm fertilizer.

The Department of Agriculture issued a statewide order to stop Siemens Power Corp. of Richland from selling it after learning the company had sold 390,000 pounds of waste material laced with uranium as fertilizer in this state.

State officials want farmers to let them know if they have used or possess any of the material. Agriculture inspectors plan to begin work Monday trying to determine where the waste went and whether it did any harm.

State officials in a news release late yesterday said Siemens violated the law requiring disclosure, review and approval before using hazardous waste as fertilizer.

Phone messages to Siemens were not returned.

State officials said they don't know of any health concerns from the practice, but they don't know enough about radioactive materials or other contaminants in it.

The use of spent industrial acid as fertilizer is largely unregulated by federal and state governments, even when the acid contain potentially toxic chemicals. This was the first such case state regulators stumbled on.

The practice by Siemens surfaced only after the company asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to let it sell more ammonium compounds with higher uranium as fertilizer. The request last May is still under review.

Siemens asked the NRC to increase the allowable limit on uranium in the waste material from 0.05 parts per million to 1.0 parts per million, a 20-fold increase. Siemens told the NRC it could recycle 540,000 gallons a year as "excellent commercial fertilizer."

The company said the added uranium after 10 years of fertilizer application would be 1/65th the background level in Franklin County soil.

Siemens Power is a subsidiary of Siemens AG, a Germany-based conglomerate with more than $75 billion in sales. The Richland facility makes nuclear-fuel assemblies for commercial power plants, mostly in the United States and Asia.

Siemens said the NRC allowed the company to start selling used acid as fertilizer in a 1996 license action. State officials said they knew nothing about it.

Greg Sorlie, Department of Ecology manager for hazardous waste, said, "Even if there is not imminent threat, we are concerned that such a product has been sold and used without our knowledge."

Farmers may not have known what they were getting, either, the officials said. They asked anyone who purchased the material to phone 1-360-902-2025. The Siemens waste was being sold as 21 percent ammonium hydroxide, virtually identical to a product farmers call aqua and use widely for the plant-food nitrogen.

Ted Maxwell, fertilizer and pesticide manager for the state Department of Agriculture, said the Siemens material was illegal because it did not go through the state review required by a 1998 fertilizer law. The law was passed in response to Seattle Times disclosures of hazardous waste recycled into fertilizer. Maxwell became aware of the Siemens product only after The Times inquired.

Paul Lain, a project manager in the NRC Division of Fuel Cycle Safety and Safeguards in Washington, D.C., said yesterday he was still reviewing the company request and trying to understand the state concerns.

Lain did not know whether other NRC license-holders across the nation were using radioactive byproducts as fertilizer. He said it made sense to recycle them if they could do so safely.

John Erickson, director of the Division of Radiation Protection in the state Department of Health, objected Dec. 27 in a five-page letter to the NRC. Erickson wrote that Siemens hadn't disclosed exactly what was in the material, where it would be applied or how it would affect soil, dust and water. He also said the public needed a chance to comment.

The Siemens plant was inspected Thursday by staff from the departments of ecology, health and agriculture and the local NRC office.

The plant is near the Richland Airport. It was once part of the Hanford Site but was annexed to Richland in 1967.

The company said it wanted to recycle waste as fertilizer to be able to put less of it in the Richland waste-water treatment plant, to dry up waste-water lagoons faster under a state cleanup order, and to reduce the load on an ammonium-recovery facility under a new process.

Duff Wilson's phone message number is 206-464-2288.