Updated: The Freedom to Demonstrate Demonstrated in Crow Butte Hearing

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Demonstrators voice their opinion ahead of an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing.
Demonstrators voice their opinion ahead of an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing.

Both opponents and supporters of the Crow Butte Resources, Inc.’s uranium recovery facility near Crawford, Neb., faced off this week during a hearing before the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board. The hearing, presided over by three ASLB judges, involves a challenge to the renewed license issued to the facility in late-2014.

The ASLB is an independent body within the NRC that conducts adjudicatory hearings and renders decisions on legal challenges to licensing actions.

The ASLB judges are hearing evidence this week addressing nine contentions filed by opponents of the facility from several local residents and the Western Nebraska Resources Council, known as consolidated interveners, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The hearing is being held in the Crawford Community Center.

Four of the contentions are related to the safety review and five are related to the environmental review. The contentions challenge the adequacy of the evaluation and protection of historical resources at the site, and the NRC’s analysis of the facility’s impacts on surface water, groundwater and the ecosystem. The hearing will run until all evidence has been heard.

In filings with the ASLB, the Oglala Sioux Tribe said it will argue that NRC failed to adequately follow all legally required processes before issuing a 10-year license extension for the facility, causing the tribe “irreparable harm,” as a result.

Iris Paris of Crawford, Nebraska, greets ASLB judges for their hearing today.
Iris Paris of Crawford, Nebraska, greets ASLB judges for their hearing today.

Expert witnesses scheduled to speak on behalf of the interveners include Dennis Yellow Thunder and Michael Catches Enemy of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, as well as an archaeologist, a biochemist and three hydrologists.

The ASLB hearings come just weeks after a documentary film titled “Crying Earth Rise Up,” co-produced by Lakota grandmother Debra White Plume, Prairie Dust Films and Vision Maker Media, premiered here in Crawford. The 57-minute film presents a case against uranium mining.

Owned by the Canadian Cameco Corp., Crow Butte Resources has been conducting in situ recovery of uranium for nuclear power plants at its site four miles east of Crawford for 20 years. Cameco is the largest operator of uranium mines in the United States. The company has submitted applications for three uranium recovery site expansion projects, which are in various phases of NRC review.

The ASLB has 90 days after the conclusion of next week’s hearing to affirm, modify or reverse its decision to renew the operating license for Crow Butte.

Update: This post has been edited to include all co-producers of the documentary.

Science 101 – What is Nuclear Fuel?

Kevin Heller
Reactor Systems Engineer, Division of Safety Systems

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we told you about nuclear chain reactions and how they are used to generate electricity in reactors. This post focuses on the fuel that reactors use to create those chain reactions.

You may recall that nuclear fuel rods get hot because of the nuclear reaction, and that heat is key to generating electricity. But what exactly are these fuel rods?

Nuclear fuel starts with uranium ore, which is found in the ground throughout the world. For now, we’ll just say that uranium ore goes through several steps to be processed and manufactured into nuclear fuel. In a future Science 101 post, we’ll talk more about the process of turning uranium ore into fuel pellets.

fuelpelletEach pellet is about the size of a pencil eraser. These pellets are stacked inside 12-foot long metal tubes known as fuel cladding. The tubes are sealed on each end to form a fuel rod, and between 100 and 300 fuel rods are arranged in a square pattern to form a fuel assembly. The number of fuel rods used to make a fuel assembly depends on the type of reactor the assembly will be used in and the company that makes the fuel.

fuelrodsWhile the assemblies are very long (about 12 feet), they are less than 1 foot wide. The assemblies have special hardware at the top and bottom and at intervals in between to keep the fuel rods firmly held and evenly spaced. Fuel assemblies are only slightly radioactive before they are placed into a reactor core. Typically, a reactor core will have between 150 and 250 fuel assemblies.

We talked before about the form of uranium that is important in commercial nuclear reactors. It is an “isotope,” or an atom with a very specific number of neutrons, known as U-235. Part of the process of turning uranium ore into nuclear fuel is enrichment—which increases the amount of U-235 relative to the other isotopes naturally found in uranium. Under the right conditions in a reactor, neutrons will cause U-235 atoms to fission, or split. This leaves two new, different atoms and a couple of neutrons. These new neutrons will then cause other U-235 atoms to fission, forming a chain reaction.

As U-235 atoms fission, energy is released in the form of heat. That heat creates steam which turns a turbine to create electricity. After a few years, there is considerably less U-235 in the fuel. If the amount of U-235 were to drop too low, there would no longer be enough to keep a chain reaction going. So every 18-24 months about one-third of the fuel in a reactor core is removed and replaced with new, fresh fuel. The used fuel is often called “spent fuel.”

Spent fuel is very hot and very radioactive. The atoms created by the fission process are unstable at first and emit particles that create heat. Therefore, spent fuel must be handled and stored carefully, and under controlled conditions. We’ll talk more about spent fuel and how it is managed in a future Science 101 post.

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.

NRC Science 101: What is Plutonium? UPDATED

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer
 

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about what makes up atoms, chemicals and matter. In this post, we will look at a specific chemical element — plutonium.

Plutonium is a radioactive, metallic element with the atomic number 94. It was discovered in 1940 by scientists studying the process of splitting atoms. Plutonium is created in a nuclear reactor when uranium atoms, specifically uranium-238, absorb neutrons. Nearly all plutonium is man-made.

Plutonium predominantly emits alpha particles—a type of radiation that does not penetrate and has a short range. It also emits neutrons, beta particles and gamma rays. It is considered toxic, in part, because if it were to be inhaled it could deposit in lungs and eventually cause damage to the tissue.

Plutonium has five “common” isotopes, Pu-238, Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241, and Pu-242. All of the more common isotopes of plutonium are “fissionable”—which means the atom’s nucleus can easily split apart if it is struck by a neutron.

The various isotopes of plutonium have been used in a number of applications. Plutonium-239 contains the highest quantities of fissile material, and is notably one of the primary fuels used in nuclear weapons. Plutonium-238 has more benign applications and has been used to power batteries for some heart pacemakers, as well as provide a long-lived heat source to power NASA space missions. Like uranium, plutonium can also be used to fuel nuclear power plants, as is done in a few countries. Currently, the U.S. does not use plutonium fuel in its power reactors.

plutoniumNuclear reactors that produce commercial power in the United States today create plutonium through the irradiation of uranium fuel. Some of the plutonium itself fissions—part of the chain reaction of splitting atoms that is the basis of nuclear power. Any plutonium that does not fission stays in the spent fuel. Spent nuclear fuel from U.S. reactors contains about one percent plutonium by weight.

The different isotopes have different “half-lives” – the time it takes for one-half of a radioactive substance to decay. Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years and Pu-241’s half-life is 14.4 years. Substances with shorter half-lives decay more quickly than those with longer half-lives, so they emit more energetic radioactivity.

Like any radioactive isotopes, plutonium isotopes transform when they decay. They might become different plutonium isotopes or different elements, such as uranium or neptunium. Many of the “daughter products” of plutonium isotopes are themselves radioactive.

Many metric tons of plutonium are currently contained in spent nuclear fuel around the world. To be usable, plutonium needs to be separated from the other products in spent fuel through a method called reprocessing. Reprocessing separates plutonium from uranium and fission products through chemical means. Once separated, plutonium oxide can be used as fuel for nuclear power reactors by mixing it with uranium oxide to produce mixed oxide or MOX fuel. The U.S. government has historically discouraged the use of this technology for national security and environmental reasons.

The NRC is currently overseeing construction of a facility in South Carolina to make MOX fuel using plutonium removed from U.S. nuclear weapons declared excess to military needs, as part of a Department of Energy program to convert it into a proliferation-resistant form that would be difficult to convert again for use in nuclear weapons.

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.

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.

Assessing NRC’s Nonproliferation Efforts

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer
 

The NRC has denied a petition for rulemaking filed by the American Physical Society. The APS wanted the NRC to require applicants for licenses for uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing facilities to include a proliferation risk assessment in their license applications.

In denying the petition, the Commission approved the staff’s two main reasons for the decision:

 nonproliferation considerations are already an important part of the NRC’s regulatory process; and

 the federal government, with its diplomatic and intelligence resources, can evaluate proliferation risks better than a license applicant.

What does this mean?

dropquote1Proliferation in international affairs refers to the spread of nuclear weapons knowledge, technology and capability. Uranium enrichment and the extraction of plutonium through reprocessing spent fuel are two primary paths for developing nuclear weapons.

Nonproliferation is a policy objective of the U.S. and the international community (most notably through the International Atomic Energy Agency) to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by state and non-state actors. A key way of achieving this goal is to block the spread of nuclear technology used to produce weapons-usable material. dropquote2The State Department is the lead U.S. agency on nonproliferation issues. Support comes from the Commerce, Defense and Energy departments, the intelligence community and the NRC.

The APS said in the petition they were concerned advances in enrichment or reprocessing technologies might make it easier for other countries to develop nuclear weapons. The group filed the petition after GE-Hitachi applied for a license to build and operate an enrichment plant in North Carolina using laser technology developed in Australia. (The NRC granted that license last September.)

Because the laser technology was developed in Australia, the State Department conducted a proliferation assessment in 1999 as part of the original agreement to import the technology to this country. There is no requirement for such an assessment if the technology is developed and licensed here.

NRC regulations already provide a number of protections against the unauthorized spread of sensitive information, technology or material from the U.S.

Physical security: Licensees must protect against sabotage or theft of special nuclear material at their facilities and in transit.

Material control and accounting: Licensees must control and account for their inventories of special nuclear material and document its transfer. This includes protection against unauthorized production of enriched uranium or plutonium.

Information security: Licensees must prevent unauthorized access to classified information and technology, through security clearances, physical protection, and cyber security.

Export-import licensing: The NRC must approve the export or import of certain nuclear materials and equipment. Countries receiving the exports must provide assurances that the material or equipment will be protected, at least to the level in internationally-agreed guidelines.

As the staff noted in the petition denial, these requirements and NRC’s continuous oversight form a tapestry of protection for nuclear material and technology. These regulations – focusing on preventing the theft or diversion of radioactive materials and classified technologies – provide day-to-day protection against proliferation risks.

The Commission directed the NRC staff to periodically review these regulations and guidance. Why? To ensure they are robust enough to meet new proliferation challenges related to building and operating enrichment or reprocessing facilities the NRC has not previously licensed.

flagBut that’s not all. The NRC also supports U.S. nonproliferation policy through its regular interactions with the State Department and other agencies. The NRC continuously shares and receives information related to various threats and activities, including those related to proliferation concerns, inside and outside the country. The NRC also supports U.S. participation in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This group of countries seeks to ensure that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology.

The Commission also concluded there is a need to communicate more effectively with the public on how the NRC holistically addresses non-proliferation objectives in agency processes. And to communicate on how the agency contributes to broader government nonproliferation efforts.

The NRC will continue to support the State Department and other federal agencies in these efforts, we will also continue to address proliferation risks in our comprehensive regulations for physical security, material control and accounting, information security, cyber security, and export control.

For these reasons, the NRC is confident these multiple layers address proliferation risks and concerns that might be raised by NRC licensing enrichment or reprocessing facilities.

The NRC’s decision to deny the APS petition will be explained in greater detail in a Federal Register notice to be published soon. The staff paper recommending denial, the Staff Requirements Memorandum approving that recommendation, and the Commissioners’ voting records are available on the NRC website.