Agencies sign MOU to strengthen U.S. uranium mining industry

July 29, 2020, 7:02AMNuclear News

Kristine Svinicki, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, have signed a memorandum of understanding to improve coordination and cooperation in the regulation of the in situ recovery (ISR) process of uranium extraction and to support the goal of establishing a stronger U.S. uranium mining industry.

Through the MOU, state regulators will remain primarily responsible for regulating groundwater pollution from ISR uranium extraction. The Obama administration’s EPA had proposed standards to regulate by-product materials produced by the ISR process, with an emphasis on groundwater protection and restoration, but that proposal was withdrawn by President Trump’s EPA in October 2018.

The MOU was signed on July 23, just one week after the Energy Information Administration reported that the United States produced 174,000 pounds of uranium concentrate (U3O8) in 2019, 89 percent less than in 2018 and the lowest amount produced since the EIA data series began in 1949. Domestic U3O8 production has declined since its peak of 43.7 million pounds in 1980, the EIA said.

The regulators: “This MOU is an important step toward establishing a robust domestic uranium mining industry, which is increasingly important for the national security interests of the U.S.,” Wheeler said. “In situ uranium mining is a proven safe and cost-effective way to provide fuel for America’s nuclear power plants, which support thousands of jobs and is a large source of emissions-free energy. This MOU reflects a common-sense approach between agencies that has come to be expected under the Trump administration.”

Svinicki added, “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.”

A win for Wyoming: “The Trump administration is limiting unnecessary regulations and making it easier for American companies to do business,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.). “Nuclear power is clean and reliable. It provides carbon-free energy and creates good-paying jobs. This agreement will help preserve Wyoming’s uranium industry. Wyoming leads the United States in uranium production. I want to thank the leadership of the EPA and the NRC for answering my call to enter into this important agreement.”

Industry reaction: “This much-needed action returns to the original intent of Congress in stipulating the shared role that the EPA and the NRC have in regulating uranium recovery operations,” said Rich Nolan, president of the National Mining Association. “Under the prior administration, the EPA ignored the congressional limitations on its authority, usurped the NRC’s responsibilities, and attempted to impose new technically unfeasible standards—not based on science or risk, but merely to impede mining operations. 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.”

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