Federal laws and regulations on mining were established during the industrial boom of the late 1800s. Many decades later, when uranium became a prized commodity for fuel for nuclear power plants, NRC was given regulatory authority over the nuclear fuel cycle. But this was rather like fitting a square peg into a round hole, and the regulatory map for what we call “uranium recovery” can be as confusing as mining companies’ claim stakes on the mother lode.
Basically, NRC’s regulatory authority begins when uranium’s physical and chemical properties are altered, the first step in the production of nuclear fuel. So we do not regulate uranium mines – conventional shaft or shallow pit mines – which simply remove rock from the ground. These are regulated by the Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the individual states where the mines are located. However, the NRC does license and regulate the uranium mill that is typically associated with a mine, because this is where the ore is treated to produce uranium oxide, or “yellowcake.”
The NRC does license and regulate “in situ leach” recovery, in which the uranium ore is chemically altered underground before being pumped to the surface for further processing. In the ISR uranium extraction process, wells are drilled into rock formations containing uranium ore. Water, usually fortified with oxygen and sodium bicarbonate, is injected down the wells to mobilize the uranium in the rock so that it dissolves in the ground water. In situ facilities are commonly called “mines,” but the NRC does not use that term because we do not have jurisdiction over conventional uranium mines. So if we seem to be particular about our language, we’re not being bureaucratic – well, yes we are, actually, because we like to be precise.
Is this confusing enough? Wait, there’s more! NRC works with other federal and state agencies to regulate uranium recovery, and some states (such as Texas and Colorado) have licensing authority through their agreements with the NRC. There are also the issues of uranium tails and legacy contamination from the Cold War uranium boom. To try to sort these out in a way that is easy to understand, we’ve posted a new Fact Sheet on Uranium Recovery on the NRC website.David McIntyre Office of Public Affairs