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European company eyes Utah mill for radioactive material

East European mill has run out of room to store uranium tailings

Energy Fuels Resources is seeking a permit to allow radioactive material from the Eastern European country of Estonia to be shipped to the White Mesa Uranium Mill south of Blanding, Utah.

In April, Energy Fuels submitted an application to the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control to accept the material from NPM Silmet, a rare-earth production plant in Sillamae, Estonia.

The company processes rare-earth metals via an acid leach process for recovery of niobium and tantalum, which are used by the aviation, automobile and electronic industries.

They have run out of storage for the residual material, called tailings, which contain the uranium.

The White Mesa Mill can process the waste tailings and extract the uranium into yellow cake to make fuel rods for U.S. nuclear power plants. Chemicals left over from the milling would be stored permanently in containment cells at the White Mesa mill facility.

The application review process is in the initial stages, said Jared Mendenhall, public information officer for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

After regulatory review, the proposal will go out for public comment in the fall, he said. Public meetings on the proposal will be held in Blanding as well.

The White Mesa Uranium Mill south of Blanding, Utah.

The White Mesa Mill is the only conventional operating uranium mill in the country. Besides processing mined uranium ore, it also has an alternate feed license to accept other materials containing uranium.

“The mill has accepted alternate feed from Canada, but this is the first application for materials overseas,” Mendenhall said.

After NPM Silmet processes the rare-earth metals, the tailings are dried and calcined, then cooled and packed in closed drums for off-site recovery or disposal, according to documents submitted to Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

Because the material has elevated levels of naturally occurring radionuclides, its collection and storage is regulated by the Republic of Estonia. The company’s license limits storage of the material to 615.5 metric tons, and it currently has 600 metric tons stored in more than 2,000 drums.

Silmet has temporarily suspended its niobium and tantalum recovery operations that produce the tailings with uranium, according to application documents. Its Estonia radioactivity license expired in January.

The Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Estonia has required that Silmet demonstrate they have arranged with an off-site facility appropriately licensed for recovery or disposal of the Uranium Material, prior to renewal of Silmet’s license and resumption of niobium and tantalum recovery operations.

Silmet has reached out to Energy Fuels to accept the material its White Mesa mill, and the application is under review by Utah regulators.

No facility within the Republic of Estonia is licensed for either the direct disposal or the reprocessing of the uranium laced material. Although the Estonian government plans to build a disposal facility, it is not expected to be completed for a number of years.

It is not clear what the shipping route for the tailings from Estonia would be if the application is approved. The U.S. Nuclear Regulator Commission is responsible for regulating transportation of radioactive materials.

The White Mesa mill’s proposal to accept radioactive material from overseas has alarmed officials with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. The tribe has been critical of the mill and its waste containment cells, expressing concerns about potential health and environmental impacts on the nearby reservation community of White Mesa.

“The mill has already become the cheapest alternative for disposal of low-level radioactive waste in North America,” said Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Tribe. “Now, it appears that it may become a destination for the materials from around the globe. That is disconcerting and dangerous.”

Efforts to contact NPM Silmet and Energy Fuels for this story were unsuccessful as of press time.


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