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.