Join me with welcoming Frank Wallace, a person with not a little experience in operating under conflicting government regulations. The subject of uranium mining and its various proscriptions and prescriptions will be new to many of us, but they are well worth knowing about. Particularly since the EPA—one of the agencies deeply involved in nuclear energy—is now tasked with regulating CO2.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
When it comes to federal regulatory agencies none walk taller nor speak softer than the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC, the only independent federal regulatory agency, relies on licensing fees to supply the operating capital needed to license and inspect the Nation’s nuclear fuel cycle. Under an objective risk-informed, performance-based system, NRC’s licenses become the “gold standard” of the industry allowing public access to the rational reasoning underlying all NRC decisions.
Unfortunately, other similar federal agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, prefer a subjective politically-based approach to regulatory oversight and mission implementation. Recently, these two diametrically opposed approaches collided over some Source Material License applications currently receiving intense NRC scrutiny and the high level waste repository at Yucca Mountain. NRC continues to do their job and review the license applications despite the politically-based, unfounded protestations of EPA and DOE.
In situ leach uranium recovery milling, the preferred method of uranium recovery for the past several decades, allows surface land uses to continue while a series of water wells and some pH magic solubilize the uranium and extract it safely, efficiently and environmentally-friendly from the ore body. Currently, nearly two dozen new or expanded ISL facilities scattered across Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and New Mexico are in various stages of license review. (PDF)
NRC’s 2009 Generic Environmental Impact Statement for In-Situ Leach Uranium Milling Facilities (NUREG-1910) (LINK) facilitates their review of the expected license applications by addressing “common environmental issues associated with the construction, operation, and decommissioning of ISL facilities, as well as the ground water restoration at such facilities.” For site-specific impacts not covered in the GEIS, a Supplemental EIS would be completed.
Late last year NRC published 3 SEISs for public and governmental comment. (LINK) On March 3, 2010, EPA notified the NRC that it found the SEISs Inadequate (Category 3) for “(1) the narrow range of the wastewater disposal alternatives analysis along with the limited discussion regarding waste management impacts; and (2) the lack of information regarding air pollutants and the impacts of those emissions. Additional concerns include the potential establishment of alternative concentration limits (ACLs) as groundwater restoration targets prior to completion of adequate restoration efforts, and the information concerning climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.”
The EPA concluded their diatribe by citing some bureaucratic mumble-jumble, to wit:
“Based on our review of the draft SEISs and consistent with our responsibilities under NEPA and section 309 of the Clean Air Act, EPA is rating each of the draft SEISs as “Inadequate” (Category 3). This rating indicates EPA’s belief that these draft SEISs do not meet the purposes of NEPA and should be formally revised and made available for public comment in a supplemental or revised SEIS. If we are unable to resolve our concerns, this matter would be a candidate for referral to the Council on Environmental Quality for resolution.”
Thus, without apparently bothering to read the GEIS, EPA laid down the gauntlet. What would NRC do? Knowing NRC’s disdain for EPA runs deep we watched in anxious anticipation waiting for the other shoe to drop. And, drop it did.
On April 5, 2010, NRC authorized early construction activities to proceed at one of the ISLs (LINK)
Normally, license issuance solely confers construction authority; but, in this case NRC granted an exemption request allowing UR Energy’s Lost Creek ISL to proceed with the preparation of site infrastructure and support facilities prior to the issuance of the primary NRC license. Similarly, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality issued a Draft Underground Injection Control Permit authorizing the drilling, completing and operating of 5 deep non-hazardous waste disposal wells.
It appears that EPA’s words, worth less than the paper they wrote them on, gather dust as NRC and the State of Wyoming collectively, figuratively and matter-of-factly tell EPA to “pound shale.”
What will EPA’s response be?
We can only imagine more hand-waving, more bureaucratic BS and more insistence on “following the process” from EPA.
Meanwhile at Yucca Mountain a DOE desperate to implement the Presidential death decree withdrew the YM application to the NRC; but, the NRC refused to halt its review. (LINK)
NRC moves on with the licensing and future unannounced inspections of the licensed facilities assure safe operations effectively protecting the health of the workers, the public and the environment. We can smile knowingly while EPA and DOE look for additional political ways to block NRC from successfully licensing not only the front end but also the back end of the Nation’s nuclear fuel cycle.