U.S. NRC Blog

Transparent, Participate, and Collaborate

Introducing Modern Uranium Recovery: Improved Regulations Make the Difference

John Saxton
Project Manager
Uranium Recovery Branch
 

Production began this month at the first new U.S. uranium recovery site to open in 30 years, after the NRC authorized Ur-Energy to begin uraniumrecoveryoperations at its Lost Creek site in central Wyoming. This milestone is important because of improvements in technology and environmental protection that make uranium recovery much safer than it was during the Cold War.

Uranium recovery is the first step in the complex process of turning uranium from raw, underground ore into fuel for nuclear reactors.

The NRC granted a license to Ur-Energy in 2011, but additional state and federal approvals were needed before uranium recovery could begin. The company received its final permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management last fall. Then NRC inspectors traveled to the site to certify the facility was ready. Once we were satisfied and gave our OK, Ur-Energy started extracting uranium.

The new facility uses the in situ recovery process to bring uranium out of the ground. While traditional mining is regulated by the states, the in situ process requires NRC approval because it changes the chemical form of the uranium. The process involves drilling wells into rock formations that contain uranium. Then a solution is injected to dissolve the uranium. The solution is usually a mix of water, oxygen, hydrogen peroxide and sodium bicarbonate (commonly known as baking soda). The uranium solution is pumped back out and into a processing plant. There, it is separated, concentrated and solidified into a powder known as “yellowcake.”

One of the most important features of an in situ recovery operation is the program for monitoring and restoring groundwater. Operators control the solution by pumping more out of the ground than is injected. They also monitor to confirm these controls are working. When the operations are complete, groundwater must be restored. The goal is to leave the groundwater as safe as it was before the operation began.

Cold War uranium operations did not have these controls and did not have to meet NRC regulatory requirements. Many of these “legacy” sites require extensive cleanup and monitoring. Improved regulations and controls are key to protecting public health and the environment.

3 responses to “Introducing Modern Uranium Recovery: Improved Regulations Make the Difference

  1. Karen August 25, 2013 at 7:28 am

    If you are injecting a liquid mix and taking out more volume of a liquid than what is injected, then does it mean that the extra volume of the liquid is supplied by ground water?
    If such is the case then does ground water get in touch with the dissolved Plutonium?
    So the danger from the Plutonium excavation remains but is marginally decreased?
    Do you have any statistics showing the level of contamination in ground water for both the processes for an equal time period?

    • Moderator August 26, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      I’ve taken the liberty of separating out your various questions.

      Q. If you are injecting a liquid mix and taking out more volume of a liquid than what is injected, then does it mean that the extra volume of the liquid is supplied by ground water?

      Yes, the extra volume is native groundwater. Any excess groundwater/liquid is primarily used in other areas of the operation or discharged to a permitted disposal area. All groundwater/liquid must be treated to meet radiation protection standards before it can be released back into the environment.

      Q. If such is the case then does ground water get in touch with the dissolved Plutonium?

      No, this system is used to recover naturally occurring uranium. Plutonium is a man-made substance created when uranium fissions in reactors. Because of the lack of fissioning, plutonium does not enter the picture for this process. Groundwater in the subsurface is never in contact with the liquid injected (except for that being extracted), so the process does not increase the levels in groundwater. As stated above, any groundwater/liquid produced by the activities that contain dissolved uranium or its daughter products must be treated before it can be released.

      Q. So the danger from the Plutonium excavation remains but is marginally decreased?

      For ISR facility, the bulk source material (rock) is not excavated as in a conventional mill. Furthermore, plutonium is not produced by the either conventional mill or ISR operation.

      Q. Do you have any statistics showing the level of contamination in ground water for both the processes for an equal time period?

      I’m not sure what two processes you mean. The blog post talks about opening the first in situ uranium recovery facility in the U.S. in 30 years. The facility uses modern technology and meets more rigorous requirements than any uranium recovery project that has ever operated in the U.S. As stated in the post, the goal is for groundwater to be as safe at the end of facility operations as it was before the facility opened.

      John Saxton

      • Karen August 27, 2013 at 6:02 am

        Hi John,
        Thanks for the detailed reply.
        It beautifully answers the doubts that I had regarding the process of extraction.
        Let the world be a better place with more greener technologies coming up.
        Thanks once again for answering my queries so patiently.

%d bloggers like this: