Feds limit fallout from an NRC letter

We are pleased to see that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week cleared up some of the confusion it created with a letter it wrote last month regarding the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in western Montrose County.

That letter had already proved a near-nuclear reaction from Dr. Chris Urbina, the director of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. Urbina correctly argued that the NRC was interfering in an issue where it had already relinquished authority.

Fortunately, the NRC walked back its apparent position from a month ago, saying this week it doesn’t intend to interfere in the Piñon Ridge case.

The NRC letter sent last month was to an attorney representing the Sheep Mountain Alliance, which opposes the mill and is involved in a lawsuit with state officials over the state’s approval of a license for the Piñon Ridge mill.

Among other things, the Sheep Mountain group contends the state erred because it rejected the group’s request for a specific public hearing on the license. This despite the fact promoters of the mill say there have been multiple meetings and opportunities for public input on the project.

The March 6 letter from the NRC to Sheep Mountain attorney Jeff Parsons said the federal agency had substantiated the Alliance’s concerns about its inability to get the state to hold a licensing hearing.

But the Health Department had followed its own rules. And, as Urbina noted, the NRC had given up its oversight authority on such matters through a state-federal agreement that makes the Health Department the licensing agency for projects like Piñon Ridge.

The federal agency could not retroactively impose “corrective action” on the license approved by the state last year, Urbina said in his letter to the NRC.

He was right, and the dispute went beyond the issue of the Piñon Ridge license, as important as that is. It went to the heart of the relationship between state and federal government, and whether a federal agency believes it is bound by an agreement the state, in good faith, signed with it.

In its statement this week, the NRC said it hopes to address questions of potential incompatibility between state rules and NRC regulations by conducting a review of Colorado’s radioactive materials licensing program. However — and very importantly — the NRC said that review won’t have any bearing on the status of the Piñon Ridge license.

We continue to believe the Piñon Ridge mill makes sense as part of the nation’s power system, in large part because 21st century health and environmental regulations are far more stringent than what was in place when the previous generation of mills was built in the 1950s and 1960s.

If the NRC had pushed to retroactively make itself a player in the licensing of the mill or the lawsuit over that license, the bureaucratic and political fallout in Colorado would have been immense.


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