The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.
On Oct. 1, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced its first uranium recovery permit of the 21st Century: an operating license for extraction and concentration of the mineral at the Moore Ranch located between Gillette and Casper, in Campbell County, Wyoming.
The NRC granted the license to the 20-percent Japanese-held Canadian corporation Uranium One Americas, Inc., for the Moore Ranch in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mining and processing facility in the Powder River Basin.
The property, which covers approximately 7,100 acres in northeastern Wyoming, is the first to receive such a license since 1998, the NRC said in a news release.
When Uranium One submitted the application for the facility on Oct. 2, 2007, it also was the first applicant for an NRC uranium license in two decades, said then-President and CEO Neal Froneman.
He called the 1988 request “a landmark event in the rapidly evolving renaissance of the United States uranium mining industry,” adding, “We look forward to becoming a leading uranium producer in the world’s largest nuclear power generating market.”
Consultation is ongoing with the tribes that have heritage interest in the Moore Ranch, according to the Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) that NRC staff prepared for the project.
“Tribal consultation letters were sent to the following tribes on Dec. 24, 2008: Blackfeet, Cheyenne River Sioux, Crow, Eastern Shoshone, Ft. Peck Assiniboine/Sioux, Northern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Sioux, and Three Affiliated Tribes,” it says, adding, “No response has been received indicating that traditional cultural properties or landscapes of importance occur within the proposed license area.”
The Oglala Sioux Tribe recently argued concerns about cultural properties and water impacts during a public hearing on an ISL uranium mining permit being sought across the state line in South Dakota by Powertech USA, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the 20-percent Belgian-held Canadian Powertech Uranium Corp.
Following the hearing Custer, South Dakota, the NRC announced in August that it had granted legal standing for the tribe, local residents and area citizens groups to participate in the permit process of Powertech USA’s proposed Dewey-Burdock ISL uranium mining site near Edgemont, South Dakota.
If Powertech obtains permission to mine on 18,000 acres of Fall River and Custer County in the Southern Black Hills, it will be the first time the in-situ uranium leaching process will be tried in South Dakota.
However the ISL method is practiced elsewhere in Wyoming and has been the dominant process for uranium recovery for several decades, according to the NRC.
The ISL process removes uranium from underground aquifers through a grid of pumps to inject solutions of groundwater mixed with oxygen, hydrogen peroxide, carbon dioxide, or sodium bicarbonate to dissolve the uranium and other heavy metals in the ore body. In comparison with the conventional milling process, ISL uranium recovery results in minimal disruption to the surface but requires restoration of the groundwater, the NRC notes.
The agency's licensing of the Moore Ranch in-situ leach uranium mine has no direct impact on the proposed mines in the Black Hills, according to a representative of one of the area citizens groups. “However, as the first in-situ leach mine license issued in recent years, Moore Ranch sets a precedent that opens the door to uranium mining in our region,” said Lilias Jarding of the Clean Water Alliance.
The NRC permit was based not only on its SEIS, but on the agency’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for ISL uranium mining.
“NRC’s licensing experience indicates that the technology used for ISL uranium recovery is relatively standardized throughout the industry and therefore appropriate for a programmatic evaluation in a GEIS,” it states.
“Based on discussions between uranium recovery companies and the NRC staff, future ISL facilities could be located in portions of Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, and New Mexico,” it continues. NRC is the licensing authority for ISL facilities in these states.
“This should serve as a wake-up call,” Jarding told Native Sun Weekly.
“Uranium mines pollute water, and in-situ mines use huge amounts of water,” she added. “We need to protect our water by actively opposing proposed uranium mines in the Black Hills,” she said. “This has stopped uranium mining here before, and it will stop it again.”
The Clean Water Alliance also warns against the health hazards of radiation from uranium extraction and transportation. Citing studies by the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, CWA states that 272 old mining sites in western South Dakota have never been reclaimed. “Mining should not be restarted when the messes from past uranium mining have not even been cleaned up,” a CWA brochure says.
It goes on to note the historic boom-and-bust cycle of short lived economic growth followed by recession, which is characteristic of uranium mining areas.
The NRC impact study for the Moore Ranch states that the socio economic impact of the operation will be “moderate”, while all other impacts will be “small” or “small to moderate” during construction, operation, transportation, aquifer restoration and decommissioning.
That includes impacts on shallow and deep ground water quantity and quality, as well as cultural resources.
The NRC permit decision concludes that the proposed facility can operate safely, including management of radiological and chemical hazards, groundwater, protection, and eventual cleanup, in accordance with its review of a Safety Evaluation Report.
In the context of other Thunder Basin uranium mining, which the NRC staff considers “moderate”, Moore Ranch also entails just a “small to moderate” impact, the SEIS says.
In considering the cumulative effect on the environment, “The NRC staff determined that the small to moderate impacts from the proposed Moore Ranch Project are not expected to contribute perceptible increases to the moderate cumulative impacts … in conjunction with other oil and gas exploration and mining activities occurring throughout the Powder River Basin,” it says.
According to Uranium One, the Moore Ranch Project is destined to become one of several such operations, shipping uranium to a central processing plant at Willow Creek Project, slated to begin production of yellow cake in 2011 on the Irigaray and Christensen Ranch, which it acquired for $35 million in January.
Production of uranium bearing resins from Moore Ranch is expected to begin in 2012, serving as a source of 2.95 million tons of raw material containing 5.8 million pounds ofU3O8 (uranium). The plant has a licensed capacity of 2.5 million pounds per year.
Uranium One has an agreement with the Power Resources, Inc. (PRI), a U.S. subsidiary of the Canadian Cameco Corp., for PRI to process Uranium One's resources from its ISL projects in Wyoming.
The NRC’s GEIS for uranium mining says it will honor “federal trust responsibility to federally-recognized Indian tribes that arises from treaties, statutes, and executive orders. NRC’s interaction with tribal governments is guided by the provisions contained in Executive Order 13175, Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments, issued by President Clinton on November 6, 2000.
“As an independent regulatory agency, NRC is not bound by the provisions of the Executive Order but has adopted practices that are consistent with the fundamental principles contained in the Executive Order. To meet these objectives, NRC routinely consults with tribal governments that have a known interest in, or may be potentially affected by, NRC’s regulatory actions,” it says.
According to the GEIS, “Land-disturbing activities, such as grading roads, installing wells, and constructing surface facilities and well fields, are expected to be the most likely to affect cultural and historical resources. Prior to engaging in land-disturbing activities, licensees and applicants would review existing literature and perform region-specific records searches to determine whether cultural or historical resources are present and have the potential to be disturbed.”
“Consultation to determine whether significant cultural resources would be avoided or mitigated would occur with the other agencies, state historical preservation offices, and tribal representatives,” it says.
(Talli Nauman is a co-founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at email@example.com)