The government has made good progress in reducing risks from uranium contamination on Navajo land, five federal agencies told Congress in a report last week. EPA compiled the report with input from the NRC, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Centers for Disease Control and the Indian Health Service.
This report recaps work done since October 2007. At that time, Congress asked the agencies to develop a five-year plan to address the contamination, which dates back to the 1940s.
Demand for uranium skyrocketed near the end of World War II. The ore was needed for nuclear weapons manufacturing and later to fuel commercial power reactors. The Navajo Nation lands had large uranium deposits, but mining and milling then was not nearly as regulated as it is today. Mining companies left extensive contamination requiring cleanup.
In 1978 Congress passed a law to ensure that uranium mill waste (called tailings) would be safely managed into the future. Under that law, DOE is responsible for the long-term care and maintenance of four former mill sites: Tuba City, Ariz.; Shiprock, N.M.; Mexican Hat, Utah; and Monument Valley, Ariz.
The NRC oversees DOE’s work at those sites. For example, DOE is responsible for cleaning up contaminated groundwater at the sites. The NRC reviews those cleanup plans. DOE monitors disposal facilities for uranium mill tailings. The NRC observes DOE inspections at the sites. The NRC also reviews and comments on DOE’s performance and environmental reports.
While the NRC does not regulate mine cleanup, the agency will also be working closely with EPA, DOE, the New Mexico Environment Department, and the Navajo Nation during the cleanup of a contaminated mine site in Church Rock, N.M. This conventional strip mine operated from 1967 to 1982. EPA plans call for the mine waste to be disposed at the nearby Church Rock mill site, which must be done in compliance with NRC disposal regulations.
Over the past five years, NRC staff has met many times with members of the Navajo Nation. We will continue these oversight and outreach activities.