NRC Joins Five Other Agencies in Addressing Uranium Contamination on the Navajo Nation

Dominick Orlando
Senior Project Manager

 

Navajo coverLast year, after five years of work to reduce risks from uranium contamination on territory that is part of the Navajo Nation, the NRC, along with four other federal agencies, reported on our progress to Congress. This week, the five federal agencies issued a plan that spells out how we’ll continue coordinating that work for the next five years.

 The agencies’ second Five-Year Plan builds on lessons learned from the first five years. It reflects new information and defines the next steps to address the most significant risks to human health and the environment. The new plan commits us to working together to reduce these risks and find long-term solutions.

 In October 2007, Congress asked the agencies to develop a plan to address the contamination on Navajo land, which dates back to the 1940s when uranium was in high demand. The Navajo Nation had large uranium deposits but regulations were not what they are today and mining companies left extensive contamination requiring cleanup. Legislation and new regulatory provisions were put in place to address these issues.

 The 2013 report capped off a five-year program the agencies conducted, in consultation with Navajo and Hopi tribal officials, to address uranium contamination on their land. Part of this work was government-to-government consultations with the Navajo.

 The program was a joint effort among EPA, the NRC, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Centers for Disease Control and the Indian Health Service. It focused on collecting data, identifying the most imminent risks, and addressing contaminated structures, water supplies, mills, dumps, and mines with the highest levels of radiation. We also learned more about the scope of the problem and the work that still remains.

 The NRC’s role is to oversee the work done by DOE, which is the long-term custodian for three sites storing uranium mill tailings—a sandy waste left over from processing uranium—and one former processing site. We do that by reviewing and, if acceptable, concurring on DOE’s plans to clean up contaminated groundwater, visiting the sites to evaluate how DOE is performing long-term care activities, and reviewing DOE’s performance and environmental reports.

 We will work closely with EPA, DOE, the New Mexico Environment Department, and the Navajo during the cleanup of the Northeast Church Rock site—which EPA and Navajo officials identified as the highest priority site for cleanup. The NRC will also be part of outreach activities detailed in the plan, including participating in stakeholder workshops and contributing, as appropriate, to educational and public information activities.

 Five years from now, we look forward to being able to say that with close coordination among all the parties, we have continued to make major progress in addressing concerns about uranium contamination.

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.