How it Works: The NRC’s Process for Licensing Uranium Recovery Sites

William Von Till
Chief, Uranium Recovery Licensing Branch

After years of thorough review, the NRC has issued a handful of licenses over the past several months for uranium recovery facilities in the Western United States. We thought this would be a good opportunity to explain all the work that goes into NRC approval of these licenses.

Locations of Uranium Recovery Facility Sites

First some context: like all commodities, the price of uranium rises and falls based on a number of factors. About a decade ago, the price of uranium began to rise, prompting mineral companies to begin looking seriously at developing new uranium production facilities. Beginning around 2006, these companies were contacting the NRC to better understand our licensing process.

 Generally, our work with an applicant begins years before we ever receive an application. Any meetings we have with an applicant are open to the public, whether before or after they apply. We ask interested companies to let us know their plans ahead of time so we can budget resources to conduct our reviews. And we are available to answer questions on our regulations, the application process, environmental reviews, or whatever other issues a potential applicant or the public may want to discuss.

The first step on receiving a uranium recovery facility application is for the NRC to conduct a thorough review to make sure the application addresses all aspects of our regulations and is complete. Sometimes these reviews find areas where an applicant needs to provide more information. We do not “accept” an application for technical and environmental review until we are satisfied the information we will need is there.

Once the application is accepted, we invite interested parties to participate in the licensing process. We provide details on how to find the documents and offer a chance for them to ask for a hearing. We set a proposed schedule for our review. We also begin the process of reviewing the environmental impacts of the proposed facility. This extensive process involves the public as well, providing opportunities to weigh in on which environmental issues need to be addressed at any given site.

The technical reviews for recently licensed facilities have taken years. For example, the Dewey Burdock facility in South Dakota received an NRC license April 8, about four and one-half years after we accepted it for review. The application for the Ross facility in Wyoming, which we licensed last week, took us about three years to review. How long our review takes depends on several things—the quality of the application, the amount of confirmatory work we need to do, and how long the applicant takes to respond to our questions, just to name a few.

The environmental review proceeds in parallel but also involves a lot of work. In addition, we must consider the impacts on cultural and historic resources. These evaluations require us to consult with other federal, state and tribal officials and the public—a time-consuming but invaluable process that gives us the most complete picture possible of the impacts a facility could have.

Only after these reviews are completed does the NRC issue a license. All the documents associated with our technical and environmental reviews are made available to the public through our documents database. We are pleased that two of our multi-year licensing reviews came to a close in April. We have seven additional uranium recovery applications under review and may receive as many as 11 more this year.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

4 thoughts on “How it Works: The NRC’s Process for Licensing Uranium Recovery Sites”

  1. “Once the application is accepted, we invite interested parties to participate in the licensing process. We provide details on how to find the documents and offer a chance for them to ask for a hearing. “

    This is a misleading, indeed farcical description of NRC’s actual process for granting Source and Byproduct Material (SML) licenses. I invite readers to contemplate the meaning of the phrase “we invite interested parties to participate in the licensing process” – by this the writer presumably means the NRC’s Notice of Hearing Availability published in the Federal Register, the only “invitation” we have ever received to “participate” in the licensing process. And then, parse the meaning of this artful phrase: “[we] offer a chance for them [the “interested parties”] to ask for a hearing.” In other words, it’s not really “an invitation to participate in the licensing process,” but rather “a chance to ask for a hearing” to determine whether such a “chance” of participation will actually be allowed to materialize.

    Any ordinary citizen who has ever pursued this arduous “invitation” knows that his/her chances of actually participating in an adjudicatory hearing on the merits and demerits of a proposed SML license are next to nil. An elaborate maze of exclusionary pleading standards, unique in the annals of US administrative law, stand between the “interested parties” and their right to a hearing under the Atomic Energy Act, which (ironically) directs, “the Commission shall grant a hearing upon the request of any person whose interest may be affected by the [licensing or rulemaking] proceeding, and shall admit any such person as a party to such proceeding.” 42 U.S.C. 2239. NRC’s current rules governing the “admissibility” of contentions blatantly infringe this public hearing right enshrined in the AEA.

    Finally, even if one has the good fortune (and financial/legal resources) to penetrate the NRC’s contention admissibility barrier, one is still left with the certain knowledge that irrespective of how your environmental concerns are adjudicated, the Commission believes they need not delay the granting of a license. This reality gives the lie to the author’s claim, “Only after these reviews are completed does the NRC issue a license.” It is an index of the NRC’s contempt for public participation in the SML licensing process that it regards its licensing reviews to be “complete,” and thus issues a license, when contested matters actually remain under adjudication, as they are today in both the Dewey-Burdock and Ross Project license proceedings.

  2. William Von Till – It would be great to post a link for the site that is the best run and also the site that has had the most problems and/or required the most oversight by the NRC, so that readers can see what the NRC is doing to make these sites safer.

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