A semitrailer quietly left the former Sequoyah Fuels Corporation site near Gore this week, hauling away the last of 511 loads of nuclear waste that has plagued Sequoyah County and its citizens for decades.
The Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma attorney general’s office worked for 18 months to ensure the off-site disposal of 10,000 tons of radioactive material were removed from the Sequoyah Fuels site. The waste was transported to a disposal site in Utah where the uranium will be recycled and reused, leaving the area near the Arkansas River free of this nuclear waste for the first time in nearly 50 years.
“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,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “This would not have been possible if the tribe and state had not worked tirelessly together in court to ensure removal of this material.”
The uranium processing plant was opened by Kerr-McGee in 1970. It converted yellowcake uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors. The plant changed ownership more than once and was eventually sold to General Atomics under the name Sequoyah Fuels Corporation.
An accident at the plant killed one worker and injured dozens of others in 1986. Another accident in 1992 injured about three dozen workers. Following that accident and years of violating numerous environmental rules and nuclear safety standards, the plant was closed in 1993.
Tons of radioactive waste remained at the facility when it closed, so in 2004 the Cherokee Nation and state of Oklahoma entered into a settlement agreement that required the highest-risk waste be removed from the site. The owners of Sequoyah Fuels Corporation announced in 2016 their intention to bury the waste on site, but a judge forced the company to comply with the original agreement. Removal of the material is now complete.
“The Cherokee Nation has been in and out of court with Sequoyah Fuels since 2004, and now this material is no longer a ticking time bomb on the banks of the Arkansas River, one of our most precious natural resources,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources Sara Hill said. “Decommissioning this plant was never enough to satisfy our goals for a clean and safe environment. Removal of this highly contaminated waste was our goal, and we’re pleased that goal has finally been achieved.”
The plant is located where the Arkansas River and Illinois River meet.