NRC Talks Virginia Mining

The launch of the NRC Blog prompted a number of interesting comments on issues the NRC faces each day. Here’s one:

I live in Virginia and I would like to comment that a Canadian mining company is attempting to overturn a 1982 moratorium which makes it illegal to mine or mill uranium in Virginia. What seems to be overlooked is the separation of mining & milling uranium from the rest of what I call “the nuclear cycle”! The fact is that mining uranium has never been conducted in an area with as dense population, or with as much rainfall (42 – 45 inches annually). They have decided that we should be an experiment, and they have allies who have vested interests in this industry. We do not want to be guinea pigs in anyone’s experiment.

I would like to solicit the opinion of the NRC on this most important issue.

Uranium recovery – as we refer to the extraction and milling of uranium ore – is a complex regulatory subject covered by many federal and state laws dating all the way back to the Mining Act of 1872. The NRC’s authority stems from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which gives the agency jurisdiction over uranium once its physical or chemical properties are altered for eventual use in the nuclear fuel cycle. As a result, the NRC does not regulate uranium mines – the conventional shafts or surface (strip) mines – but it does license and regulate uranium mills, the related facilities that process the ore into uranium oxide, or “yellowcake.” There is another type of uranium recovery, called in situ recovery (ISR), which injects a solution into the ground to extract uranium from the rock; the resulting uranium solution is then pumped to the surface for processing. The NRC licenses and regulates ISR facilities because the uranium processing begins underground. (We do not call these facilities “mines,” but everybody else does.)

Now, to Virginia: One of the nation’s larger uranium deposits happens to be in southern Virginia. Uranium prices have soared in recent years, and a company called Virginia Uranium has expressed interest in mining the deposit. The state has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to study whether mining is feasible and safe given the environmental challenges cited by our commenter. If the project proceeds, it would involve conventional mining, which means the Commonwealth of Virginia and other federal agencies – not the NRC – would regulate the mine itself. However, the company will need to apply to the NRC for a license to construct and operate the mill. The mill would have to meet the tough requirements in NRC regulations (10 CFR 40, Appendix A) to protect the public and the environment from the mill’s operations and waste.

Given this regulatory picture, the NRC has no opinion to express on the Virginia mining project at this time. If and when the company submits a license application for a mill, the NRC will examine it thoroughly for technical safety and environmental impacts. The planned mill must meet NRC’s regulatory requirements for safe operation and protection of the public health and the environment, before it can receive an NRC license.

To correct one mistake in the original comment: According to Virginia Uranium, it is not a Canadian company but is owned by 31 land owners residing near the deposit. Information on the proposed project may be found in the NRC’s online ADAMS document database by searching for accession numbers ML081610623 and ML081630110. An NRC slide presentation to the National Academy of Sciences regarding conventional milling is at: ML110320309.

And for more information on the NRC’s regulation of uranium recovery, including applications under review for new facilities out West, see our newly revised, updated and expanded Uranium Recovery Web page at   http://www.nrc.gov/materials/uranium-recovery.html .

Dave McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

Meeting the Challenge of Regulating New Reactors

As many of you are aware, the much-anticipated and often-written about global surge in interest in nuclear power is underway. Our agency is in the midst of this surge to safely meet the substantial challenge that many industry experts expect to continue in 2011 and well beyond.

In fact, we are actively reviewing 12 combined license applications that, if approved, could result in the construction and operation of up to 20 new reactors. A map of projected locations for new reactors can be found here: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/col/new-reactor-map.html .

To meet this growing interest in commercial nuclear power, in 2006 the agency created the Office of New Reactors, or in agency-speak, ”NRO.” Located at NRC headquarters, near Washington, D.C., we work closely with a new agency inspection organization in our Region II Office in Atlanta, GA. This structure ensures that we are fully equipped and ready to address the renewed interest in nuclear energy.

Our mission is to serve the public by ensuring the safe, secure and environmentally responsible use of nuclear power in meeting the nation’s future energy needs. However, as federal regulators, it is important to point out that we are not advocates for or against commercial nuclear power.

Our responsibilities in this new office are divided into three subprograms or areas of focus – New Reactor Licensing, Construction Oversight and Advanced Reactors.

In addition, we are active in the international area, including significant participation in the Multinational Design Evaluation Program. This program develops innovative ways to leverage the resources and knowledge of international regulatory authorities to review new reactor power plant designs.

Please look for more detail on each of these areas in future posts. In the meantime, if you have any questions about new reactors, please let us know in the comments to this post.

Bob Jasinski
Senior New Reactors Communications Specialist