Nuclear Energy Development

Posted: Oct 6, 2010

 

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Nuclear Energy

Increasing demand for electricity and concern about pollution and climate change have led to renewed interest in nuclear energy production. As interest in nuclear energy production rises, so to does the need for uranium mining. While nuclear energy offers greenhouse gas emission-free power, it fails to live up to its "clean energy" reputation due to the dangers of uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal.

Key Concepts

 

Nuclear Energy Production

Commercial nuclear power plants in the United States generate electricity through Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs). Of the 104 licensed nuclear power plants in the United States, 69 are PWRs and 35 are BWRs. Nuclear Energy supplies about 19 percent of the United States’ electricity production. 

Pressurized Water Reactors
Typical Pressurized Water ReactorIn most commercial PWRs, energy is produced through the heating of water to create steam to turn a turbine. The primary difference between PWRs and BWRs is that in PWRs, the steam is created in a steam generator. The water is prevented from boiling as it flows through the reactor vessel by a pressurizer unit. The cores are cooled by circulated water. 

 

 

 

 

 

1. The uranium core inside the reactor vessel creates heat.
2. The heat is carried to the steam generator by pressurized water.
3. The steam flows into the main turbine through a steam line from the steam generator.
4. The steam turns the turbine which produces electricity.
5. Unused steam is condensed back into water and sent back into the reactor vessel.

Boiling Water Reactors

typical_boiling_water_reactor

1. The uranium core in the reactor vessel creates heat.
2. A steam-water mixture is produced as water moves upward through the core and absorbs heat.
3. Water droplets are removed from the steam-water mixture after it leaves the top of the core.
4. The remaining steam enters the steam line and is directed to the main turbine and turns the turbine to produce electricity.
5. Unused steam is condensed back into water, reheated, and pumped back into the reactor vessel.

BWRs produce energy in a similar manner as a coal-generated plant. There is no steam generator. Instead, the water is allowed to boil to produce steam. As the steam rises to the top of the pressure vessel, remaining water droplets are removed, and the steam flows to a turbine generator and turns the turbine to produce energy. BWR cores are also cooled by circulated water.

The Uranium Core

BWRs and PWRs use the same fuel: uranium. After mining, uranium is in ore form and must be processed into solid ceramic fuel pellets. 

Uranium is naturally found in most rocks and in seawater, and its slow radioactive decay provides the main source of heat inside the Earth. It naturally occurs primarily as two isotopes: uranium-238 (U-238) and uranium-235 (U-235). U-238 comprises 99.3% while U-235 is about 0.7%. It is the U-235 isotope needed to provide fuel to nuclear reactors. 

The U-235 isotope works well in nuclear bombs and reactors because it can be easily split under certain conditions. As the nucleus splits into two, two or three additional neutrons are thrown off and release heat. The expelled neutrons can cause the nuclei of other U-235 atoms to split, creating a chain reaction of the releasing and capturing neutrons. A small amount of uranium can produce a large amount of heat because it starts a reaction and keeps it going. In both PWRs and BWRs, the heat is used to make steam. ***fission diagram http://www.world-nuclear.org/education/uran.htm In the reactors, the uranium is used to created a controlled fission chain to produce heat, similar to the way coal and gas are burned in traditional electricity plants to produce heat. 

Uranium Enrichment
Uranium enrichment increases the proportion of U-235. Reactors require a higher concentration, between 3 and 5 percent, of U-235 than exists in natural uranium ore. Other uses like research reactors, bombs, and reactors on aircraft require uranium enriched to more than 90 percent U- 235. The United States discourages enrichment to this level to prevent it from falling into the hands of weapons builders. 

Mill Tailing
Mill tailings are the sandy byproducts of uranium mining. It is a residue from the uranium and heavy metal ores that are mined in the uranium mining process that contains radioactive decay products. The sandy nature of the mill tailings create a high risk for environmental, especially water, contamination. Accordingly, the NRC has codified regulations for the disposal and storage of mill tailings at 10 CFR Part 40. Tailings are usually stored in piles covered in earth called impoundments. 

Nuclear Energy as Clean Energy

Nuclear Energy is often considered a clean energy because the production does not emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, or nitrogen oxides. Fossil fuel emissions do occur during the uranium mining, enrichment, and transport processes.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the primary body for regulating nuclear energy production and development. It was created under the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 and is responsible for the regulatory responsibilities of civilian nuclear energy facilities. The Department of Energy is responsible for matters concerning nuclear weapons, promotion of nuclear power, and assigning the NRC regulatory work.

General Mining Law of 1872

The General Mining Law of 1872 (GML) controls extraction of hardrock minerals, creating a system of property rights based on the status of the mining claim. The GML provides that all valuable mineral deposits on lands owned by the United States are open to exploration and purchase and that the land above such valuable mineral deposits is open to occupation and purchase. See Controversies: Uranium Mining for some of the negative consequences of this policy. Under the GML, a miner who is searching for minerals has certain rights; a miner who has made a valuable discovery of minerals has more extensive rights.

Uranium as a Hardrock Mineral

Hardrock minerals is a term used to describe the valuable minerals regulated by the GML. Hardrock minerals include precious minerals such as gold and silver as well as industrial minerals like zinc and copper. While most of the energy minerals are in the leasable minerals category, uranium is a hardrock mineral. Under the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act of 2009, uranium would be classified as a leasable mineral.

Uranium Mining Methods

Uranium is mined through two methods: conventional mining and milling or in situ recovery. In 2003, U.S. uranium ore reserves were estimated at about 890 million pounds with most reserves being located in Wyoming and New Mexico. 

Conventional mining and milling
Under conventional mining and milling techniques, uranium ore is extracted from the earth from deep underground shafts or shallow open pits. Trucks then deliver the uranium ore to the mill. The mill is a chemical plant that extracts the uranium by crushing it into smaller particles and using a chemical as a leaching agent to leach the uranium from the ore. Sulfuric acid is usually used as the leaching agent, but alkaline solutions can also be used. The mill then concentrates the extracted uranium into yellowcake for transport. 

These facilities are located near the ore supply. The surface features are characterized by the mill buildings, process tanks, tailings impoundment, and evaporation ponds. While the impoundments are restricted to 40 acres, a facility can have multiple impoundments. The primary waste generated is mill tailings - the sandy, radioactive material left over from the crushing process. These sites also result in pipes, pumps, and other equipment that cannot be decontaminated. 

In situ recovery
During in situ recovery (ISR), a chemical solution is injected into ore via a series of wells to dissolve the uranium. The solution, called lixiviant, is then pumped through recovery wells and to a processing plant where the uranium is separated from the solution. The uranium is then concentrated into yellowcake. ISR is often used to recover uranium from low-grade ores where the conventional mining method would be monetarily inefficient or cause environmental damage. 

ISR facilities require wells in the ore body, and the processing plant is typically nearby. The surface features consist of wells header houses, pipes, a processing facility, ponds, and deep injection wells for liquid waste, leading to a site that can be several thousand acres. The facilities generate liquid waste and contaminated pipes, pumps, and other equipment. 

Heap leach and ion-exchange facilities
Heap leach and ion-exchange facilities were the third type of uranium extraction facilities used in the past, but no facility of this type is in current use and are in the process of decommissioning. In these facilities, uranium was extracted by spraying an acidic solution over a heap of ore. Then, similar to ISR, the uranium solution would drain into pipes, and the extracted through an ion-exchange system.

Radiation Illnesses

As radioactive materials decay, they produce ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation has the ability to break chemical bonds and damage any living tissue. Length and severity of radiation exposure determine the level of illness. 

Stochastic health effects refer to long-term, low-level exposure. Higher levels of radiation may make the symptoms more likely to occur, but do not effect the severity of the illness. Stochastic illnesses associating with radiation exposure include cancer, birth defects, and other genetic mutations. These illnesses can have a long latent period between the first exposure and the appearance of symptoms. Because of the time lapse between exposure and illness onset, the medical community has not unequivocally linked low doses of radiation to cancer, but the medical community generally recognizes that radiation increases the risk of cancer. 

Non-stochastic effects are associated with high levels of radiation and become more severe with increased exposure. These illnesses usually have a quick onset and include burns and radiation sickness. The severity and onset of radiation sickness symptoms vary based on the level of exposure, but can appear immediately or up to several weeks after exposure. Symptoms include weakness, nausea, diarrhrea, hair loss, dizziness, headache, and fever. 

Process Essentials: Uranium Mining Regulation

The NRC regulates all phases of ISR. Unlike conventional mining, the ISR extraction process involves chemical altering of uranium. The NRC issues licenses for the mining process and establishes rules the mines must follow to maintain the licenses. 

The Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the individual states regulate the extraction process during conventional mining. Uranium is currently governed as a locatable mineral by the General Mining Law of 1872. See Hardrock Mining for an explanation of the mining permit process. However, under a piece of pending legislation, uranium could be treated as a leasable mineral under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920

The NRC regulates the milling process under 10 CFR Part 20. The NRC becomes involved with the recovery process when the ore is processed and chemically altered. In conventional mining and milling, this only happens during the milling phase. 

Agreement State Program

The NRC currently regulates active uranium recovery operations in Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nebraska. Texas, Colorado, and Utah regulate the active uranium recovery operations within each state under the Agreement State Program through the NRC. Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the NRC is authorized to delegate a portion of its regulatory authority to license and regulate byproducts, source materials, and certain quantities of special nuclear materials. uranium-milling-map

The 36 states in the program agree to regulate radioactive material in accordance with the regulations established in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The agreement states grant radioactive material licenses, promulgate regulations, and enforce the regulations. 

The states are reviewed periodically by the NRC to ensure the performances of each state are compatible with the NRC’s regulatory standards. 

Process Essentials: New Nuclear Plant Licensing

Seventeen companies are considering building more than 30 nuclear power plants, and the NRC is currently reviewing 13 license applications for 22 nuclear power plants. Before these plants are built, they must be licensed through the NRC. 

The NRC created an alternative licensing process, codified at 10 C.F.R 52, in 1989 that was both more efficient and open to public debate. It was also included in the 1992 Energy Policy Act. All currently operating nuclear power plants were built before 1989 and were licensed under the old 10 C.F.R. 50 two-step process. The old process required both a construction permit and operating license, while the new 1989 process combines the permit and license. 

Old Process

The old licensing process was riddled with several shortcomings. The construction permit was issued based on a preliminary design, so safety issues were not fully discovered and resolved until the plant was nearly completed. The old permit process did not release details about the plant to the public until construction was almost finished, limiting the effectiveness of public input. 

New Process

The new process is divided into three parts: reactor design certification, early site approval, and a combined construction and operating license. While more efficient than the old process, the Nuclear Energy Institute predicts that for the first plants under the new process, the licensing timeline could take around ten years. 

Plant design: Plant designers develop plant design plans and obtain approval from the NRC in advance of any plant construction or independent of any plans to build a plant. After submission of a design, the NRC takes between three and five years to complete the review of the design, and considered public comment during this process. All safety issues related to a particular design will be resolved before being certified. The NRC has only certified four advanced-plant designs at this time, and three more are under review. NRC approval is valid for 15 years on a particular design. Companies can purchase the pre-approved plant designs at any time, license them for a certain site, and build them. 

Early site approval: Companies now obtain site permits from the NRC before deciding to build a plant. It is beneficial to both the public and to plant builders. Before approval is granted, all site suitability issues must be resolved, preventing a company from committing funds to a site that will later be rejected. After a site is approved, companies can wait up to 20 years before beginning construction. 

Early site approval applications consist of a site safety analysis, an environmental report, and emergency planning information. The public and the government can participate in all levels of early site approval applications. Companies generally commit between one and two years to the preparation of an early site approval application, while NRC review, including a public hearing, lasts an additional 33 months. 

Sites with approved early site permits include the ClintonGrand Gulf, and North Anna nuclear plant sites. 

Combined Construction and Operating License: The NRC now issues a combination construction and operating license known as a combined operating license (COL). When the COL is attached to an early site approval or pre-approved plant design, the issues relating to the site and design are considered resolved and not related to the COL proceeding. Instead, the COL review and public hearing will focus on the remaining issues including plant ownership, other design issues, and organization and operational programs. No applicant has completed the entire COL process yet, but the NRC estimates the first COL approval could take as long as 42 months. 

After the three steps of the licensing procedure are completed, Part 52 defines a series of inspections, tests, analyses, and acceptance criteria to assess the completed plant agreed upon 

during the licensing process. These elements are used during the construction of the plant to ensure it conforms to the licensed plans. 

Process Essentials: Radioactive Waste Regulation

The NRC and Agreement States regulate all aspects of radioactive waste storage, transport, and disposal.

Low-level waste disposal occurs at commercially operated low-level waste disposal facilities. These sites must be licensed by the NRC or Agreement States and designed, constructed, and operated to meet the safety standards promulgated by the licensing body. The low-level waste classification encompasses items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or exposed to neutron radiation. The three low-level waste disposal facilities in the U.S. are in Richland, Washington; Clive, Utah; and Barnwell, South Carolina. In 2008, these three facilities handled 2,085,366 cubic feet of radioactive waste

High-level radioactive wastes are produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors. The two forms of high-level waste are spent reactor fuel and and the waste materials remaining after spent fuel is reprocessed. Because the only way radioactive waste becomes harmless is through decay, which can take hundreds of thousands of years, the waste must simply be stored. As set forth in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, high-level waste must be disposed of underground in a deep geologic repository. See Controversies for a discussion of Yucca Mountain. The U.S. Department of Energy is responsible for designing, building, operating, and decommissioning a disposal facility subject to NRC licensing. The EPA develops site-specific environmental standards to evaluate the safety of the site, but the NRC develops the regulations to implement the standards. The primary goal of the NRC’s regulatory actions is to protect the health and safety of both the public and the environment. 

The NRC also regulates the storage of spent nuclear fuel after it has been removed from the reactor core. The NRC promulgates regulatory requirements, licenses, and oversees safety. Most spent fuel is stored in specially designed pools, but if pool capacity is reached, above- ground dry cask storage may be used at more locations. 

***storage capacity graph at http:// www.nrc.gov/waste/spent-fuel-storage/nuc-fuel-pool.html 

Controversies: Uranium Mining

major_us_uranium_reserves.pngThe ability to use uranium as a fuel source for nuclear power caused an increased in uranium prices and a renewed interest in uranium mining in recent years. This resurgence of interest in uranium has caused many groups to push for reforms of uranium mining as part of the hardrock mining reform process, especially in light of past environmental damaged caused by poor mining practices.

A report by the advocacy group Earthworks argues that lax regulation, environmental violations, and pollution discredit industry claims about the safety of modern uranium mining. See "Nuclear power's other tragedy: Stories from the frontlines of uranium mining," Earthworks (June 2011). An in-depth story in the Christian Science Monitor in January 2013 highlights the risks that the western uranium mining boom poses for water supplies.

In May 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report concluding that federal agencies need to coordinate more on uranium mining oversight to prevent situations in which taxpayers foot the bill for cleanups later.

Uranium Mining on Public Lands Near Grand Canyon National Park

Mining companies have proposed five uranium prospecting projects in the Kaibab National Forest near the Grand Canyon. The Forest Service has approved one of the proposals, allowing Vane Minerals Group, a British mining company, to explore a portion of Kaibab National Forest less than three miles from the Grand Canyon for uranium exploration. The approval allows Vane to drill seven wells. 

State, local, and tribal government officials in Arizona have voiced strong opposition to the projects. In addition, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Grand Canyon Trust have filed suit claiming that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) with its method of approving Vane's project. Instead of doing an environmental assessment, the Forest Service claimed that the projects fall under a categorical exclusion to NEPA because the projects might not lead to the discovery of uranium and because the exploration projects will last for less than a year. In April 2009, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction halting the project, ruling that the Forest Service likely misused the categorical exclusion when it issued Vane's permit without performing an environmental analysis. In September 2009, the Forest Service agreed to withdraw its approvals of Vane's applications and prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) discussing potential environmental consequences before approving the project. The National Park Service advises against drinking and bathing in the Little Colorado River, Kanab Creek, and all other Grand Canyon waters found to be contaminated with excessive radionuclides. 

Forest Service officials claim that the General Mining Law of 1872 (GML) prevents the federal government from denying the mining companies the right to explore for uranium in the Tusayan Ranger District. This claim has fueled calls for reform of the mining law. More than 2,100 mining claims have been filed in the Tusayan Ranger District alone. In May 2010, an uranium mine owned by Denison Mines Corp. 20 miles from the Grand Canyon was issued a notice of violation for operating without EPA approval.

The Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act of 2009, an unsuccessfully introduced bill in the 111th Congress, would have withdrawn the lands near the Grand Canyon from mineral exploration under the 1872 Mining Act. Included in the area to be withdrawn were 628,886 acres in the Kanab Creek area, 112,655 acres in House Rock Valley managed by Bureau of Land Management, and 327,367 acres in the Tusayan Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest south of the Canyon. In a hearing on the bill in July 2009, Interior Secretary Salazar announced a two-year moratorium on new hardrock mining claims in one million acres surrounding Grand Canyon. The moratorium did not affect uranium mining claims already filed. Unless Congress allocates money for the claims to be purchased, the claims cannot be blocked under the GML. On June 20, 2011, Sec. Salazar announced that this ban would be extended through Dec. 20, 2011, and on January 9, 2012, Sec. Salazar announced a final decision on the 20-year ban. See "Grand Canyon ban on new mining riles Republicans," Christian Science Monitor, 1/10/12.

In February 2011, as part of an EIS process, the U.S. Department of the Interior released for public comment four alternatives to address uranium mining around Grand Canyon, including one that would ban new claims on one million acres for 20 years. The document, prepared by the BLM, estimated the potential value of uranium mined near the
Grand Canyon at $2.9 billion over 20 years. The draft EIS was released in October 2011. See "'Unearthly' beauty tops jobs? Obama freezes mining near Grand Canyon," Christian Science Monitor, 10/26/11. In February 2012, the National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute filed a lawsuit challenging this decision as constitutionally invalid.

In March 2011, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issued air quality permits and an aquifer protection permit for the Pineut, EZ and Canyon mining projects near Grand Canyon National Park. All of these projects are subject to the federal review process overseen by the DOI.

Uranium Mining on Tribal Lands

American Indian tribes, particularly the Navajo Nation, have voiced concerns over the health effects of uranium mining. Because of the location of many uranium claims on or near reservations, many tribal members worked as uranium miners during the last uranium boom. Miners extracted nearly four million tons of uranium ore between 1944 and 1986 under lease agreements with the Navajo Nation. This boom began in the 1940s and endured through the Cold War when America sought uranium for both energy production and thermonuclear weapons. 

Many of these tribal members suffered negative health effects as a result of their time in the uranium mines, including skin, stomach, and hearing problems, lung cancer, and leukemia. The illnesses were not restricted only to the miners. Community and family members were also exposed to radiation and heavy metal contaminants through the air, soil, and water. The EPA noted “Some Navajo residents may have elevated health risks due to the dispersion of radiation and heavy metal contamination in soil water. Ingestion of contaminated water has been identified as the exposure pathway of greatest concern.”

The land itself was also effected. The Navajo Nation, situated on a geologic formation laden with uranium ore, the Colorado Plateau, has over 500 abandoned uranium mines, a former dump site, and contaminated groundwater. 

Under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), uranium miners, millers, and ore transporters who display specific symptoms qualify for payments of $100,000. Citizens of the Four Corners Region of Utah, Colorado, new Mexico, and Arizona comprise the vast majority of RECA claims.

In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council banned uranium mining within the Navajo Nation boundary, and in 2007, five federal agencies worked to create a comprehensive five-year plan to address uranium contamination on Navajo lands. Under the plan, the EPA submits regular progress reports. 

The Navajo Nation and Navajo community continue to actively challenge proposed uranium mining activity, even on land outside the Navajo Nation boundaries. Most recently, the Navajo community and several other groups opposed mining operations in Churchrock, New Mexico. HRI, an uranium mining company, owns a tract of land surrounded by Navajo land. In Hydro Resources, Inc. v. EPA, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals moved to allow the mining operations. The court rejected the claim that the EPA should regulate uranium mining on that tract because it was part of “Indian Country.” As a result, the regulation of the mine will be left to state law. The 10th Circuit oversees other uranium-rich states including Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Because of the long-running issue of what land is considered “Indian Country,” the issue is likely to continue to the Supreme Court. 

For a summary of issues related to abandoned uranium mines on Navajo lands, see "Uranium mines dot Navajo land, neglected and still perilous," Salt Lake Tribune, 3/31/12.

Further north in the Black Hills region, members of Plains Indians tribes and their land have been harmed by uranium mining. 

The Cave Hills, a sacred place for Plains Indians, is just one of the contaminated areas in the northern plains. Today, the water runoff from the Cave Hills abandoned uranium mines empties into the South Grand River, which flows through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The Grand River also flows into the Shadehill Reservoir and the Missouri River. The Cave Hills area was mined by The Kerr-McGee Company and Kermac, but no uranium has been removed from the ground since 1964. The companies failed to take reclamation measures because they were not required on public land in the 1960s, allowing erosion to wash toxic and radioactive piles of slag and tailings into the creeks. 

The Forest Service Risk Assessment found that hunters and ranchers that frequent the Riley Pass uranium mine area within the Cave Hills have unacceptably high carcinogenic risks. Native American worshippers who spend 25 hours per year in the Riley Pass area have an elevated carcinogenic risk, an amount that the EPA considers a ‘concern.’ For the Lakota, Hidatsa, and Madan people, the area is linked with the early rebirth of the bison. Rituals may include drinking from the sacred springs, but the main advocacy group for the Cave Hills mine cleanup, Defenders of the Black Hills, warn against drinking from the springs until comprehensive testing for contamination is completed. 

The extremely high cost of reclaiming open-pit uranium mines makes the clean-up process cost-prohibitive. In 2005, the Forest Service was negotiating with Kerr-McGee to reclaim 6 to 8 mines at a cost of $14 million. The cleanup by that company is again in question after Kerr- McGee’s successor Tronox Incorporated announced reorganization under Chapter 1 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in 2009. The companies that own the other 4 to 6 easily accessible mines are no longer financially capable of such an expensive project. There are 89 mines in Harding County alone, leading the Defenders of the Black Hills to call for special legislation to procure funds. 

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is embroiled in two separate issues resulting from uranium mining. 

The battle against uranium mining near their land escalated in 2007 when Canadian mining company Cameco applied for a license renewal and expansion license for its Crow Butte facility in Nebraska near Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Black Hills Sioux Nation, and others challenged the foreign ownership of the Canadian-based Cameco in 2009 in an attempt to halt the expansion. The Atomic Energy Act prohibits the NRC from granting an In Situ Leach uranium mining license to a foreign company. Among the concerns of the petitioners was the worry that the water contamination would extend to Pine Ridge. Besides health risks, water contamination would be especially harmful because of the importance of water to the Lakota culture. The possibility of water contamination between the mining site and the reservation exist due to fractures in the underground layers of rock. With legal action still pending, neither application has been approved. 

Powertech submitted an application for an In Situ Recovery facility in southwest South Dakota, near Pine Ridge, in 2009. The Oglala Sioux Tribe and a group named Consolidated Petitioners oppose the site. A hearing in June 2010 investigated whether the petitioners have standing, and if the burden is met by either the Oglala Sioux Tribe or the Consolidated Petitioners, a full evidentiary hearing may be next. The petitioners claim the mining process will damage underground aquifers. 

Uranium Mining on Colorado's Western Slope

In 2009, the Department of Energy’s uranium leasing program opened an additional 27,000 acres of land in Mesa, San Miguel, and Montrose counties in Colorado to uranium mining. Under the program, the government leases formerly public land to private industry for mining and development. The first withdrawal of land from the public domain for the purpose of mineral mining was in the 1940s and 1950s, followed be another round of the program in 1974. All these leases were allowed to expire in 1994, and the DOE prepared an environmental assessment. The DOE issued a Finding of No Significant Impact in 1995, and offered continued leases to leaseholders. 

map_of_lease_sitesThe additional land, along with an increased interest in uranium mining, put a renewed focus on southwest Colorado. Beginning in 2002, mines that had been closed for decades were reopened due to the increased price of uranium, and more mines are expected with mining companies holding 17 active mining permits in Montrose County and 14 in San Miguel County alone. The DOE predicts southwest Colorado will soon be producing 2 million pounds of uranium each year.

Locals are squaring off against each other over new mine sites and a proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill. The mill would be the first one opened in the U.S. in 25 years. Located in rural Montrose County, the mill could process ore drawn from 41 nearby mines, and according to experts, make the area a center for a new nuclear energy industry. The only other mill in the state is the closed Cotter Corp. mill in Cañon City. 

Some residents are in favor of the mines and mill, both for the jobs they will bring and for the fuel they will provide to create clean energy. Other residents ally with environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and seek to avoid the environmental destruction of the forests and open spaces and the illness exposure to the radioactive byproducts bring, citing former mining ghost towns and previous harm caused by uranium mining. The nearby town of Uravan was once home to a uranium mine and mill but was evacuated in 1984 due to radioactive contamination. It was declared a Superfund clean-up site in 1986 and reclaimed in 2008 at a cost of $127 million. 

Because Colorado is an Agreement State, the mill initiated the licensing process with the state instead of the NRC. The Montrose County Commissioners provided comments on the Environmental Report to the Department of Public Health and Environment on April 19, 2010. The State of Colorado approved the license in January 2011. The plant still needs to obtain air quality and transportation permits before operations can begin.

In October 2011, a federal judge ordered a halt to uranium mining on Colorado's western slope, concluding that DOE officials failed to analyze site-specific impacts and violated the Endangered Species Act. See "Judge halts uranium-mining plans in Colorado over environmental issues," Denver Post, 10/20/11. In March 2012, the NRC ordered the state to hold formal hearings and improve its process of public participation in decisions related to uranium mining and processing. See "Feds: Colorado bungled public review of proposed uranium mill near Nucla," Denver Post, 3/15/12.

For coverage of uranium development in western Colorado, see:

Controversies: Radioactive Waste Disposal

Yucca Mountain

In June 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a license application to the NRC for the construction of a high-level radioactive waste disposal site approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The site would accept waste from the construction of atomic weapons as well as waste form the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors.

conceptual_design_of_yucca_mountain_disposal_planAfter the administration change, plans to terminate the Yucca Mountain project were created, and in May 2010, a federal appeals court gave the DOE permission to continue the shutdown. In June, a panelof three administrative judges said DOE could not halt the project without action from Congress because the site was designated as the nation’s nuclear waste dump by Congress in 1987. The DOE plans to appeal the ruling.

Other states have a vested interest in the Yucca Mountain repository. South Carolina is storing 37 million gallons of liquid waste and tons of used fuel rods that are meant to be stored at Yucca Mountain. The federal government has spent more than $10 billion to develop the site with the funding coming from a surcharge paid by nuclear customers. The surcharge has raised $32 billion. Although many technical experts assert the site is safe, most Nevada politicians oppose the site for fear the location would damage Las Vegas’ $28 billion tourism industry.

For a summary of the national dilemma of nuclear waste disposal, see "Nuclear waste dump is mired in inertia," Washington Post, 6/14/11. For an update on legal developments related to Yucca Mountain, see "Court forces a rethinking of nuclear fuel storage," New York Times, 6/8/12.

Collaboration in Action

Colorado
Although Cotter Corp., a uranium mill less than two miles south of Cañon City, Colorado, was designated as a Superfund site in 1984, its owners considered reopening the site as a re-engineered mill in 2009. The mill operated continuously from 1958 to 1979 and then intermittently until 2005.
Cotter kept decades worth of tailings on tailings ponds with layers of ponds to prevent radioactive dust from rising into the air. Frequent leaks in the ponds contaminated the groundwater. Since 1984, several Cotter committed to several costly cleanup techniques, many with positive results, including the shrinking of the contaminated groundwater plume under Lincoln Park. However, in 2007 a new leak occurred, spreading a new plume under a golf course and toward the Arkansas River. The site is still on the Superfund list and contamination still exists. The company is currently removing contaminated soil, trying to contain pond leaks, and diluting groundwater contamination.
The owners began the process to reopen the mill in 2009. In response, Colorado lawmakers passed H.B. 1348, the Uranium Processing Accountability Act, which was signed by Governor Bill Ritter June 8, 2010. The bill requires uranium mines and mills to clean up nuclear waste before accepting more radioactive material or before a license for renewal or expansion can be granted. Mines and mills are currently allowed to delay cleanup until they finish production. John Hamrick, vice president of milling a Cotter Corp., said the bill will prevent the company from reopening in 2014 as a leach heap facility as planned. The bill also requires operators inform residents about threats to the groundwater after a known contamination.

 

Legislation in the 113th Congress

New information will be added as the Congress takes action.

Other Resources/Links

Public Laws

General Mining Law of 1872 
Atomic Energy of Act of 1954 
10 C.F.R. 52 - Licences, Certifications, and Approvals for Nuclear Power Plants 
Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 
Radiation Exposure Compensation Act 
National Environmental Policy Act 

Agencies

Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Department of Energy
Office of Surface Mining
Environmental Protection Agency

Other Organizations

Nuclear Energy Institute
Defenders of the Black Hills

Other Issues

U.S. Government Accountability Office report “Nuclear Material: Several Potential Options for Dealing with DOE’s Depleted Uranium Tails Could Benefit the Government

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