Saturday, July 5, 2008

Idaho signs new nuclear waste cleanup agreement

It removes a threat to the Snake River aquifer from transuranic wastes

Gov_OtterIdaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter (left) stepped into history this week joining former Idaho governors Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt by signing a ground breaking cleanup agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy. Like its predecessor agreements, signed by these two previous Idaho governors, this one implements a federal court order and ends years of litigation. The agreement will result in the federal government paying site contractors to remove radioactive waste from pits and trenches where it was dumped in the 1950s and 60s after being shipped to Idaho from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado.

Otter said at a press conference in Boise on 7/1, attended by Andrus and Batt, that the cleanup plan was developed "after an exhaustive technical review" that balanced risks to the public, workers, and the public.

“This agreement reflects years of effort, scientific advancement, diligent follow-up, and most of all building trust. We enter into this agreement confident that it is in the best interest of the aquifer, the Idaho National Laboratory, and all Idahoans. With the support of my predecessors in this office, it represents our best effort – and our highest aspirations – for securing a safe and productive future.”

transuranicThe plan targets 7,485 cubic meters of waste in an area of about six-to-eight acres contaminated with transuranic elements as well as volatile chemical compounds. The solid wastes will be removed and shipped to a geologic repository. The volatile organics will be vacuumed out, and a impermeable cap will be put over the former disposal area and monitored to insure nothing is migrating towards the underground aquifer.

A healthy dose of common sense

Realistic expectations seems to have finally taken hold of both parties. Former Gov. Phil Batt told the AP,

"At my advanced age, I was afraid I'd get buried before the buried waste left here. It's time to carry out the judge's orders to the best of our abilities. I don't think it would be in the interest of the state of Idaho to continue on with these lawsuits."

Kathleen Trevor, who has been involved in the cleanup for 15 years, said the agreement preserves the state's right to go back to court if there are problems in the future. She said targeting removal of transuranic waste makes more sense than a wholesale cleanup.

"After thorough technical, legal and policy review, this is the right thing to do."

Get it ~ got it ~ good

There are three reasons why this deal is good for Idaho, the cleanup effort, and the nuclear R&D lab.

  • No more hardball legal tactics

Seal_of_Idaho_svg It's good for Idaho because it ends the hard ball legal battle over "all is all" regarding how much waste to dig up from the subsurface disposal area. Earlier this year the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the Boise Federal District Court decision in 2006 on this issue in favor of the State of Idaho. Now both sides have an agreement which they can use to measure progress. Plus, the cost is much more manageable for the federal government and it focuses on the transuranic wastes not ALL wastes. The transuranics will be removed from Idaho.

  • Future governors will have wind in their sails

CecilAndrusIt supports the precedents set by the legacies of former governors Cecil Andrus (right) and Phil Batt, who attended Gov. Otter's press conference and endorsed the new agreement with DOE. Both former governors worked hard to get DOE to to sign up for key cleanup agreements. Setting the current deal in place insures Otter shares in that legacy. It establishes precedent for future governors. It puts wind in their sails because of the success these three have achieved on cleanup efforts.

  • It supports nuclear R&D missions at the lab

INL bannerIt is good for the Idaho R&D lab which now has a better shot at getting federal funding to build the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) ($1-2B in construction costs starting about 2016). This is because there is continued progress on cleanup AND the federal government isn't burdened with a huge, new cleanup bill. Also, public opinion surveys over the years have shown repeatedly that Idaho voters will support new nuclear energy R&D missions at the lab so long as there is continued cleanup progress as well. The latest agreement continues to support that political formula.

Everyone into the pool

Endorsements for the new cleanup agreement came quickly. A press release on the State of Idaho web site contains statements from Otter, Andrus, and Batt; and, Idaho Attorney General Wasden. DOE cleanup chief James Rispoli and EPA regional administrator Elin Miller added their endorsements. DOE also issued a press release about the agreement. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, who's district includes the cleanup project, attended the press conference in Boise, and Sen. Mike Crapo endorsed it via a press release.

Costs high, so are savings, and benefits

The new cleanup project will be completed by 2020 and could cost over $2 billion, but it will cost a lot less than a plan that retrieved all of the waste which could been $13 billion. The savings are considerable and the most dangerous wastes will get cleaned up and removed as a threat to the Snake River aquifer.

That's good news.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

New battle lines drawn in Colorado uranium wars

Opponents in Telluride pitch "green v. glow" strategy

paradox valley coloradoA plan for a new uranium mill in western Colorado, the first to be built in 25 years, is drawing hostile fire from ski resort aficionados in Telluride, Colo. According to news media reports, including two in the Telluride Watch, Energy Fuels Inc., a Canadian mining company, is planning to build a 1,000 ton/day uranium mill on Pinion Ridge near Naturita, Colo.

While local government officials and businesses are positive about the economic benefits of the operation, with good paying jobs and the payroll that comes with them, John Metcalf, who lives in Ridgeway, Colo, some 40 miles north of Telluride, and 60 miles from the proposed mill site, has mounted an effort to stop it.

Metcalf has long experience in the semiconductor industry as a CFO and knows how to put together a project and develop support for it. Also, he's a long-time seasonal resident of the area. He's enlisting environmental groups from throughout the state and funding, out of his own pocket, a photo contest with cash prizes to promote the cause of stopping the mill. He's not the only one opposed to the mill. On May 30 a contentious public meeting in Norwood, Colo, left Energy Fuels President George Glasier wondering if he would be run out of town on a rail.

Public concerned about environment and trucks

energy fuelsGlasier told those attending the meeting the State of Colorado has the regulatory authority to decide if the mill can be built on the site. He said that Piñon Ridge, unlike the other mills, was located far from a river or from any groundwater, so the potential for contamination is lower.

He said that Piñon Ridge would utilize new technology that had not been available when the last uranium mill was built 25 years ago including double-lined pits for the toxic tailings, a pump vac system, leak detection, and dryers so that the slurry of radioactive processing waste can be capped more quickly. In response, Marie Moore, a local rancher, reportedly told Glasier to put the mill on his own ranch which is about 14 miles away. Actually, he's lived and ranched in the region for many years and does not consider himself to be a newcomer to the area.

Another concern raised by the public is truck traffic. At 1,000 tons or ore/day, the raw materials would be trucked to the facility and 55-gallon drums of uranium, in the form of yellowcake, would leave the mill to be further processed in uranium conversion mills.

Glasier also said that the mill could generate a lot of jobs and tax revenue for the region. He estimated that the mill itself would employ 85 people and possibly create 200 jobs in the region — better paying jobs, said Glasier, than Telluride’s tourist economy offers.

Trophy homes meet uranium mines

Telluride This is the latest in a series of controversies between the process of the residential gentrification of historic mining districts with rural subdivisions often populated with expensive trophy homes. Earlier this year Black Range Minerals, an Australian firm, ran into opposition, because of the same factors, to its proposed drilling program on Taylor Ranch in Fremont County. Only recently did the county commission grant the firm a conditional use permit to punch 800 holes in the ground to locate uranium deposits in the Tallahassee mining district.

In northeast Colorado Powertech, another Canadian firm, encountered tenacious opposition from the self-described "green" city of Ft. Collins, Colo., to its proposed 'Centennial' ISR mine near Nunn, Colo, some 15 miles northeast of Ft. Collins. Two Democratic state legislators successfully steered legislation through the legislature to impose stringent new groundwater protection requirements on ISR mining operations.

Back at Pinion Ridge national significance looms

Last July Energy Fuels announced its plans for a new uranium mill in Colorado to take advantage of the renewed interest in the mineral as a result of the global interest in nuclear energy.

The mill has national economic significance. At historical U3O8 grades typical for the region, this mill will be designed to produce between 1.6 million and 2.0 million pounds of U3O8 (yellowcake) per year. At $60/lb the value of this output is approximately $120 million/year.

The company has acquired approximately 1,000 acres of property located west of Naturita, Colorado, in the Paradox Valley of western Montrose County, where it intends to construct its Piñon Ridge uranium mill. This mill will be designed as a state-of-the-art conventional uranium/vanadium mill.

The site is large enough to accommodate a mill to meet the needs of the company for at least 30 years of mill operation. The Energy Fuels team responsible for the Piñon Ridge Mill development includes many of the key members of the team that financed and built, for Energy Fuels Nuclear, the last fully operational uranium mill commissioned in the US, the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah.

Energy fuels operations

In addition, the mines in the local region (the Uravan Mining District - map left) produce vanadium (V2O5) as an associated mineral with uranium. Vanadium is a rare earth metal currently used primarily for alloying in high strength steels. The presence of vanadium in these deposits effectively lowers the cost of uranium extraction.

At historical V2O5 grades for this region, the Piñon Ridge Mill will also produce 5 million to 8 million pounds of V2O5 per year. The production could be worth at least $40-60 million annually.

Piñon Ridge mill site is located in a sparsely populated region of open rangeland, centrally located among multiple mining properties in Colorado and Utah including the Whirlwind mine which is speeding towards start-up of production.

At the time of the 2007 announcement George Glasier, Energy Fuels CEO, said, “This land acquisition is a major step in Energy Fuels’ return as a major US uranium producer. It will enable us to provide vital domestic fuel supply for the nation’s nuclear power plants, and at the same time, offer an opportunity for many small miners in this uranium-rich area to bring new supply to market."

Metcalf marches on to oppose the mill

incendiaryJohn Metcalf is not shy about his new found role as an "instigator," a term he uses to describe his activist role in organizing opposition to the Energy Fuels mill. His rhetoric is nothing short of incendiary and contains inaccuracies about the nature of the mill's operation and uranium mining. He's got environmental threats, nuclear nonproliferation, and the potential for diminished property values all wrapped up in a single web site he called savingparadox.org. He says,

“My biggest concern is that this mill is going to turn the Paradox Valley into a wasteland for the next 64 million years. The tailings ponds will have the biggest long-term impact. Number two, the dust blowing from the dust piles can cause lung cancer. And number three, the groundwater contamination is an issue.”

Metcalf is a member of Western Colorado Congress and claims to be enlisting their support in his efforts. Besides environmental destruction and health concerns, Metcalf says he is also worried about negative economic effects the mill will have on those who live in the area.

“It seems that in talking with some people in Paradox, the biggest concern seems to be real estate devaluation,” he told the Telluride Watch. “People will not be able to sell their land because it lies next to a large uranium mill. There are already a lot of real estate for sale signs in the valley and people could be trying to sell out while they still can.”

Jobs jobs jobs

Alan BeltAside from trophy homes, ski resorts, and tourism, Telluride and the surrounding areas do not support a lot of high paying jobs. That's why Montrose County Commissioner Allan Belt (right) thinks the mill is a good deal for the region.

“As the commissioner representing the west end of the county, I’m very supportive of the effort,” said Montrose County Commissioner Allan Belt in an interview with The Telluride Watch on June 18. Belt expects the mill to be “a huge boon” to the region.

Belt told the 'Watch' that he has received some calls from Paradox Valley residents who are concerned about pollution of their water table. “I’ve been on site and looked at it,” he said. “If you’re going to have a processing mill, I couldn’t think of a better location.” In response to concerns about transportation of ore and processed yellowcake on public rights-of-way, “Their projections are that the new mill would reduce that, that travel to the mill at Blanding would create more risk.”

“As a board, [Montrose county commissioners] recognize that the environment has to be protected but that the huge economic shock to the West End is desperately needed,” Belt told the newspaper.

Yelling 'shark' at a crowded beach

Metcalf is not deterred by the thought that his opposition to the mill could stop 85 high paying jobs and their payroll from benefiting the region. He frames his opposition in almost apocalyptic terms.

JawsHis web site features articles on plutonium and a "lethal doses" of the metal. The materials seem to have been included on the web site to create irrational fear of the mill. These materials seem out of place since there is no plutonium at a uranium mine or mill. It seems as though Metcalf is yelling "shark" at a crowded beach when there isn't one around.

He starts out with a traditional 'green' concern. He says,“Paradox Valley is a beautiful valley that shouldn’t be spoiled. Metcalf says protecting the Dolores River, which crosses Paradox Valley, is another reason he opposes the mill. After this his opposition effort seems to go south. He mixes concerns about local water pollution with global nuclear nonproliferation issues. He told the 'Watch,'

“There is the danger of nuclear contamination of the environment, as well as the weapons systems which have been mostly forgotten about, but which still threaten the world."

He goes from 'green' to 'glow' without explaining why. It might be clear to Metcalf, but it only serves to muddy the political waters in western Colorado.

Scarecrow needs a brain

scarecrow A lack of understanding about the technical issues associated with uranium mines and mills pervades opposition to these operations in both Telluride and Ft. Collins. In Telluride little effort appears to have been made, by Metcalf or others, to understand the regulatory process and the scientific basis on which state agencies will base their decision to grant or deny a permit for the mill.

In Ft. Collins the problem is even more pronounced as area residents dismissed descriptions of the water table in the area of the planned Centennial ISR mine as unfit for potable uses. If the uranium wasn't already in the near-surface rock formations, there wouldn't be a proposal for the mine.

For people familiar with the uranium industry the opposition in Telluride seems inexplicable, but for area residents, fear of the unknown, and Metcalf's deliberate distortion linking the environmental issues of the mill with the threat of plutonium and nuclear weapons, was all that anyone needed to hear.

It is going to be a rough season for Energy Fuels in western Colorado. George Glasier says he's up to the task of getting the mill built. On May 30 he told the public meeting ultimately the mill will only need to satisfy the regulators at the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) and the Montrose County Commissioners to get permission to operate.

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, Glasier said, “Tell the regulators you don’t want the uranium mill. You can tell me you don’t want this uranium mill, but I’m going to do everything I can to get this uranium mill built.”

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