The USA's Environmental Protection Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission aim to improve their coordination and cooperation in the regulation of uranium extraction using in-situ recovery methods through a new Memorandum of Understanding.ISL operations at Smith Ranch-Highland in Wyoming (Image: Cameco)
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the MOU, which he signed with NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki, is an important step towards establishing a robust domestic uranium mining industry, and reflects a "commonsense" approach between agencies.
"In-situ uranium mining is a proven safe and cost-effective way to provide fuel for America's nuclear power plants, which supports thousands of jobs and is a large source of emissions-free energy," he said.
Both the EPA and NRC have individual statutory responsibilities under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 regarding uranium and thorium processing at in-situ recovery, or in-situ leach (ISL), facilities: the EPA is responsible for the standards to protect public health, safety and the environment from radiological and non-radiological hazards associated with operations; while the NRC develops regulations to implement those standards and regulate the facilities.
The MoU outlines how EPA and NRC will work to accomplish their respective responsibilities under Title II of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 to protect public health, safety and the environment from radiological and non-radiological hazards.
ISL involves recovering minerals by pumping a solution - in the case of uranium, usually the native groundwater fortified with a complexing agent and an oxidant - through an orebody to dissolve them, and pumping the resulting solution to the surface where the minerals can be recovered. This means there is little surface disturbance and no tailings or waste rock generated. According to the NRC, 12 ISL operations are currently licensed in the USA. All of the USA's uranium production in the first quarter of this year came from four of those operations, according to US Energy Information Administration data.
"The NRC welcomes opportunities, such as this, to clarify and enhance our partnerships with fellow regulators, at both the federal and state levels, who share in the important work of safeguarding public health and protecting our environment," Svinicki said.
Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the US National Mining Association, said the action would stipulate the shared role of the EPA and NRC in regulating uranium recovery operations and was "much needed" to avoid the potential imposition of "technically unfeasible" standards which were not based on science or risk.
"By drawing clear lines between the roles of EPA and NRC, the agency with the most relevant experience is able to weigh in where issue-specific expertise is needed, to the benefit of both the environment and project review," he said.
Wheeler in 2018 withdrew proposed revisions to EPA standards to regulate byproduct materials drawn up under the previous US administration, saying the standards which focused on groundwater protection and restoration would have imposed significant burdens on uranium miners.
Researched and written by World Nuclear News