Opponents: Uranium mill needs 2nd look

State regulators should take a new, long look at the permit issued for the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill, opponents of the mill said Wednesday.

The still-pending approval of a radon-emissions permit offers the opportunity for the state to reopen the permit and reconsider several aspects of the permit, said Frank Smith of the Western Colorado Congress.

Mill critics haven’t realized the uranium industry has advanced well beyond its 1950s-era beginnings, said Steve Antony, president and chief executive officer of Energy Fuels Resources, which would build the mill.

Regulators should reconsider aspects of the mill with an eye to the kind of “one-in-a-million, one-in-a-billion” chances of disaster, such as the continuing nuclear crisis in Japan, Smith said.

Western Colorado Congress and Grand Valley Peace and Justice oppose the mill under any circumstance, but if it goes forward, the organizations want regulators to enforce higher standards than had been approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

High on the list of elements that need a review is the $12 million bond posted by Energy Fuels Resources.

That amount is plainly too low, said Janet Johnson, a member of both organizations.

As taxpayers, “We know at some point we will own the mill” and be responsible for any cleanup, Johnson said.

Money for that should be built into the approval process in numbers that are more realistic, she said.

Decommissioning at some point will likely cost at least $100 million, and the reviews of the bond should reflect that, Johnson said.

The federal government was involved in several cleanups because it was for decades the only domestic purchaser of uranium, Antony said.

The Piñon Ridge mill will be built and operated according to modern standards, he said.

Energy Fuels’ proposal calls for a “sealed system that is designed not to leak, and if it does, it takes corrective action,” Antony said. “It’s a long way from unlined ponds that permeated toxic materials and radiation into the ground.”

Regulators also need to take into account seismic activity in the Paradox Valley and how an earthquake could affect the mill and, in turn, air and water quality, Smith said.

“We don’t want to see western Colorado end up with contaminated aquifers,” Smith said.

The regulatory effort took seismic activity into account, Antony said.

Regulators also should take the opportunity to reconsider the emergency-response plan and its reliance on volunteer fire departments, he said.

Even if the threat posed by an earthquake to a mill is minimal, at least compared with that of a nuclear reactor, Energy Fuels acknowledges the likelihood of traffic collisions and accidents involving the dumping of ore or yellowcake on the rural roads, Smith said.

Regulators “need to put them through the wringer” on making sure local communities are prepared for such events, Smith said.

There is no threat on the scale of the problems in Japan, Antony said.

“It’s not going to be an issue of tsunamis and floods,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of studying public comment on its proposed approval of the radon-emissions permit.


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