Sunday, March 25, 2012

NRC sheepish over Colorado uranium letters

Colorado regulators are red hot about the correspondence

It is frequently the case that when a large regulatory agency stumbles, with help from someone with an agenda, that the news media will use a baseball analogy. It is called putting your foot in the bucket.

Coaches refer to it as the misalignment of the batter's stance that contributes to strike outs.  They also mutter about rookie mistakes and not paying attention to coaching advice.

Batting averages go down and in some cases once promising players are sent down to the minors.  But once you've been a player in the big leagues for a while, rookie mistakes are no longer tolerated by the head coach.

This leads us to a complex but flawed story of how the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "allegation process" was turned into a tempest between the agency and the State of Colorado over a permit for a new uranium mill to be built by Energy Fuels (TSE:EFR) in Montrose, Colo.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety (CDPHE) has the authority to review applications for uranium mills and to issue the permits. This is because Colorado is an "agreement" state with the NRC.  In return for meeting regulatory requirements for the program, the federal agency has a hands-off policy.  Its role is limited to oversight and evaluation of the delegated program.  It does not get involved in specific permits.

Hijacking a loophole

But what happened over the past two weeks indicates that like most regulatory set ups, there are loopholes and this one turned out to be big enough to create a significant controversy.

 Last year CDPHE issued the permit for the mill to Energy Fuels much to the consternation of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, and other environmental groups, which have opposed the action at every turn.

The state agency decision followed the prescribed process including public hearings and the listing of a raft of requirements the came with the permit for environmental compliance.

Thwarted by the regulatory process, the Sheep Mountain Alliance took another path and filed an "allegation" with the NRC which is designed to raise issues about safety at nuclear power plants.  In effect, it protects whistle blowers reporting cover ups of safety lapses at nuclear reactors from retaliation by management.  The distinction here is that the Sheep Mountain Alliance is not an employee at a nuclear power plant and the uranium mill hasn't been built. There is no facility at which a safety violation can or has occurred.

That didn't stop two NRC employees from writing back to the Sheep Mountain Alliance saying that CDPHE failed to conduct a proper hearing on the permit.  That's when all hell broke loose in the news media.  Worse, the NRC did not notify CDPHE of any defects in the process or the permit for Energy Fuels.  Under the agency's allegations process, it writes to the person(s) making the complaint and not to the plant operator.

Colorado to NRC - back off

That prompted a fiery five-page response from CDPHE director Christopher Urbina.  He demanded that the NRC retract the letter to the Sheep Mountain Alliance.  He points out that no determination has been made by the NRC that any corrective action is needed in the state's licensing process.  He also pointed out the NRC has no legal authority to change the state's procedures.

Urbina also wrote that the NRC's letter was an "outrage" and would, in effect, "muddy the waters" over the permit. It is one angry piece of correspondence.

Nancy Roth, a senior editor at Fuel Cycle Week, who has been covering the issue, told this blog in an email, "I think the two NRC staff who wrote those letters made a big mistake."

Roth says what's not clear is why two experienced regulators would allow the Sheep Mountain Alliance to "game" the allegations process that is limited to safety issues at an operating reactor and apply it to a uranium mill permit.

Check facts much?

What happened next is entirely predictable. The environmental community plastered the NRC's letters all over the news media producing headlines such as one in the Denver Post March 15 "Feds: Colorado bungled review of proposed uranium mill."

In fact, a legitimate party in a safety allegation process would never go to the news media wanting at all costs to keep their identity secret.  By hijacking the allegation process, the Sheep Mountain Alliance got itself a bullhorn supplied by the NRC.

The group benefited from the news media in Denver not doing the necessary fact checking to find the truth of the matter.  In fairness, it is unlikely any would have heard of the allegation process which may have been something the Sheep Mountain Alliance counted on when it sent out its press releases.

What's will hopefully happen next is the NRC will come to terms with putting its foot in the bucket. It will have to address the state agency's concerns and basically clean up the media mess made by its staff. In the meantime, the Sheep Mountain Alliance got a boatload of free publicity even if the facts are dead wrong.  As for Energy Fuels, it will still have its permit and continues the search for investors to build the 500 ton/day hard rock uranium mill.

An after thought is that every other "agreement state" that issues permits for uranium facilities might now be wondering if they're going to see interference from the feds any time an anti-nuclear group comes knocking.  In the lower 48 only a handful of states are not agreement states.  That could be a lot of people with something on their mind.

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1 comment:

Joffan said...

I hope the NRC are sheepish. I would love to see them apologize and acknowledge that they handled this wrongly.

But I'm not holding my breath for that.