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Uranium regulators prepare for mining rush Print

Casper Star-Tribune
August 24, 2008

When PowerTech Uranium Corp. began drilling exploration wells in northern Colorado, landowners scrambled to gather baseline water quality information and to learn all they could about the in-situ leach uranium mining process being proposed throughout several western states.

Then in March, a Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality internal report revealed several years-long regulatory violations at the nation's largest operational in-situ uranium mine, Cameco Corp.'s Smith Ranch-Highland mine north of Glenrock.

The company settled the violations in July, paying $1 million in penalties to DEQ.

"From the outset, a lot of the people were pointed to the Wyoming mine as being the model operation for ISL, then that (violation) came out from DEQ about the monitoring and it really threw things up in the air for a lot of people," said Jay Davis, member of Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction.

Cameco and regulatory officials noted that DEQ did not allege any excursions or danger to human health and the environment at the Smith Ranch-Highland mine. Rather, the violations were a matter of years-long delays in restoring groundwater where uranium had been mined through in-situ leaching.

Davis said part of the concern among landowners is that they get mixed answers about how long it takes to "restore" or clean up groundwater in an in-situ leach field. Estimates range from three to five to 10 years.

In addition, Davis said that after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or state regulatory agencies declare a mine field aquifer as having been restored, there's no long-term monitoring.

Since the violations at the Smith Ranch-Highland uranium mine came to light, dozens of regulators and dignitaries have visited the mine either seeking or making assurances that in-situ leach mining is a safe and well-regulated way to mine America's uranium resources. The U.S. imports about 90 percent of its nuclear fuel, and the industry aims to expand power generation.

Last week, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., visited the Smith Ranch-Highland mine.

"We're a regulator, we're not a promoter," Klein told the Star-Tribune. "Our job, basically, as a regulator, is to do it right and do it safe."

Federal study under way

Last year, the Nuclear Regulatory agency launched a "generic environmental impact statement" in anticipation of approximately 14 new in-situ leach uranium mining proposals throughout Wyoming, New Mexico and other states where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has oversight. Several more proposals include re-starting idled in-situ and conventional uranium mining operations.

The in-situ leach process involves a series of closely spaced wells that flush a sodium bicarbonate solution into uranium ore-bearing formations. The solubolized material is brought to surface and separated.

The generic EIS is meant to address general issues regarding in-situ uranium mining. So far, citizens and local officials have listed groundwater consumption and contamination among chief concerns. Surface disturbance is another consideration. A single in-situ production field requires several hundred wells spaced only 75 feet apart.

NRC officials said once the generic EIS is completed, each permit application will receive individual considerations based on site-specific geology, air quality, social and other local concerns.

The NRC will conduct several public meetings to gather comments about the generic EIS. Meetings are scheduled for Monday in Spearfish, S.D.; Wednesday in Chadron, Neb.; Friday in Newcastle; September 23 in Gillette, and September 25 in Casper.

Nuclear on the rise

Klein said most of the nation's nuclear power plant fleet is at least 40 years old. About half of the fleet has been upgraded in recent years to ensure another 20 years of operation.

The industry has increased electrical generation capacity by an additional 5,000 megawatts within the existing fleet. The industry is more efficient, Klein said, having increased the average efficiency rating to about 92 percent to 94 percent.

"I think the industry has learned how to run their plants more efficiently without compromising safety," he said.

There are 104 nuclear reactors for electrical generation in the U.S.

"On the reactor side, (the industry must) make sure those plants run safe, or No. 105 will be very difficult to build," Klein added.

The 20 or so anticipated applications for uranium mining across the American West is reflective of the nation's dual need to produce more electricity by way of more environmentally sound methods.

Klein said his agency expects to see up to 30 applications for new nuclear power generation by 2009. That, and the recent jump in the price of uranium to $65 per pound, are the fundamental drivers for the push for in-situ leach mining across the West.

Nuclear recruiters

Klein said the NRC aims to have a bigger presence in the West as in-situ leach uranium mining ramps up. But, so far, there are no plans to open any new offices. The agency's regional office is located in Dallas.

"Having a field office is expensive," Klein said.

If the NRC were to set up a new field office, Denver would be the likely candidate, according to Klein, so staff members could have relatively efficient access to several western states.

"If the workload increases significantly (in Wyoming), I certainly wouldn't rule out a Casper office," Klein said.

For now, the agency is focused on completing the generic environmental impact statement, and at the same time, hire tons of new staff.

"We have a lot of people retiring and we are expanding at the same time, so we're in a major recruiting effort," said Klein.

Last year, the NRC hired 441 people and still had a net of only 219. Klein expects the agency will hire 500 new employees this year.

Uranium mining companies are in the same hunt for the same, limited pool of talent.

Wayne Heili, vice president of mining for Ur-Energy, said a reasonable estimate of the work force needed for a typical in-situ leach operation is approximately 60 full-time employees and 40 contractors.

"For labor, we're looking in the surrounding communities," Heili said. "We look to the universities for professional help. We're looking at young people to develop professionals."

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at (307) 577-6069 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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