Foreign ownership of Crow Butte mine is challenged: NRC agrees to hearings on mine’s license renewal

Foreign ownership of Crow Butte mine is challenged: NRC agrees to hearings on mine’s license renewal

Opponents of renewal of the operating license for the Crow Butte in situ leach (ISL) uranium mine near Crawford will be allowed to argue their case before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a three member panel of NRC judges has ruled.

In a ruling released Friday, Nov. 21, the NRC judges granted status as ‘intervenors’ in the license renewal proceedings to five individuals and five groups, including some of the same people and organizations who are opposing a proposed expansion of the mine to an area just north of Crawford.
Among the objections raised to the mine’s expansion and the license renewal are the ownership of Crow Butte by Cameco, a Canadian corporation, and the potential for contamination of underground water supplies by the ISL uranium mining process.

The NRC decision followed a two-day hearing in Chadron at the end of September, and calls for submission of written briefs on two issues relating to the foreign ownership of the mine in the next 30 days, but doesn’t set a schedule for additional proceedings.

The individuals granted intervenor status include Debra White Plume, Beatrice Long Visitor Holy Bear, Joe American Horse, Sr. and Chadron residents Thomas Cook and Loretta Cook, Organizations that will be allowed to take part in the proceedings include the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Western Nebraska Resource Council, Owe Aku/Bring Back the Way, and two family groups, the Afraid of Bear/Cook Tiwahe and the American Horse Tiospaye.

In a news release, White Plume, who is from Pine Ridge, S.D., said the panel’s decision is “a huge victory for us. I am glad that the court ruled in our favor but I also know that we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Two individuals, Dayton Hyde and Bruce McIntosh, and the Oglala Delegation of the Great Sioux Nation Treaty Council, were denied intervenor status, but the treaty delegation was given permission to take part as an “interested local government body.”

The Crow Butte mine has been in operation since 1991. The ISL process used to extract uranium from underground layers of sandstone involves injecting a solution bicarbonate of soda into the uranium bearing ore body, then pumping the water out and removing the dissolved material, which is sold as ‘yellowcake’ uranium for use in electric power generation. The Crow Butte mine produces about 800,000 pounds of yellowcake a year, and its owner, Cameco, is the world’s largest producer of uranium.

The mine’s ten-year operating license has already expired but the renewal application was submitted in time to meet the NRC deadline and it continues to operate under old permit pending action on the renewal. A backlog of cases at the NRC is blamed for some of the delay in the license renewal proceeding, which is taking place independently from action by another NRC panel on a permit for the 2,100 acre North Trend expansion.

Crow Butte also has announced plans for expansions south of Fort Robinson State Park and northeast of Marsland.

The issue of non-US ownership of the mine was raised in two separate arguments. One contention is that Crow Butte failed to disclose its foreign ownership in the license renewal application, even though the NRC was aware of and had approved Cameco’s 1998 purchase of controlling interest in the mine. The opponents also contend that the Atomic Energy Act and other laws prohibit the NRC from granting an ISL uranium mining license to a foreign company, because that would not benefit the “national interest, common defense or security” and might be a detriment to public health and safety.
That prohibition is clear with regard to uranium enrichment facilities and power plants, but not in regard to “source materials licensing,” the NRC panel said.

Because the issue is “potentially fatal” to the license renewal, the ownership question should be handled separately from and prior to the other objections, the NRC judges concluded.

The judges also want to hear arguments on five issues raised by the tribe, including whether there is evidence of a hydraulic connection between the Chadron Formation aquifer, which provides water for mining, and other aquifers or surface water.

Other issues of contention that will be argued before the board include: whether the contingency plans for a spill at the mine are adequate to handle non-radiological contamination; whether a past spill raises serious doubts about the company’s handling of mine safety operations; a claim that Crow Butte failed to consult the tribe on cultural resources at the mine site; if wetlands at the site are being harmed by mine contaminants; and whether the latest scientific data regarding the area’s hydrogeology was used in preparing the license application.

The issues relating to past performance at the mine are relevant to the license renewal because “NRC must ensure the public that “the facility’s current management encourages a safety-conscious attitude” and must provide “reasonable assurance that the facility can be safely operated,” the ruling said.