Senate Committee chair calls on EPA to withdraw uranium rule

15 December 2017

The chairman of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW), Senator John Barrasso, has called on the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw a proposed rule requiring uranium recovery operators to conduct up to 30 years of groundwater monitoring following in-situ leach (ISL) uranium production.

In a letter sent yesterday to EPA Administrator John Pruitt, Barrasso said he had already expressed concerns about the EPA's proposed rule, which was initially issued in 2015 and re-proposed in January this year. Senators including Barrasso, who represents Wyoming, have previously said that if finalised, the rule could effectively end ISL uranium production in the USA. Most US uranium production currently comes from ISL operations.

Incentivising operators

Finding a market solution that will enable the USA to build new nuclear power plants or to keep existing plants in operation is beyond the scope of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's work, the three serving commissioners told an EPW Committee oversight hearing this week.

NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki said "larger economic forces" that the US Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would focus on fall outside the domain of the NRC. Commissioners Jeff Baran and Stephen Burns agreed that the NRC had little power to incentivise operators to keep nuclear power plants online.

During the hearing, senators from both US political parties expressed support for nuclear and recognised the need for a solution to preserve well-operating plants, the US Nuclear Energy Institute reported.

Barrasso said he had "come to learn" that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had "substantive and jurisdictional concerns" about the proposal, including whether the rule exceeds the EPA's authority to set general standards for groundwater protection under the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA). Comments on the rule submitted by NRC staff had explained how the nuclear regulator has been "safely, securely, and successfully" regulating ISL facilities since the 1970s. In almost 40 years of operational experience NRC staff had been aware of no documented instance of an ISL wellfield being the source of contamination of an adjacent or nearby aquifer, he said. NRC staff had also detailed how the rule included requirements that were "not technically feasible or are unreasonably burdensome" on licensees "without providing any equivalent benefit".

"Since March 2011, prices for natural uranium have fallen by roughly 70%," Barrasso said. "In 2017, uranium producers in the US are on track to produce the lowest amount of uranium since 1951 - before the US had commercial nuclear power reactors. It is incumbent upon EPA to refrain from imposing regulations that are not technically feasible or are unreasonably burdensome on licensees," he added. Although the NRC would have the authority to deviate from EPA's regulations on a site-specific basis should EPA exceed its authority under UMTRCA, this could also lead to continuing conflict between the agencies and court challenges to NRC's actions, he said.

"In order to end such conflict, I ask that, in addition to withdrawing EPA's rule, you sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Commission clarifying EPA's authority to set generally applicable standards and NRC's authority to implement the standards," Barrasso concluded.

The EPW Committee has jurisdiction over both the EPA and the NRC.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News

Filed under: Regulation, Mining, USA