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.

%d bloggers like this: