MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Reclaiming the Land: History of Uranium Mill Tailings Clean-up

Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) has been advocating for effective uranium mill tailings clean-up for more than 25 years. Thanks to a grant from the Citizens' Monitoring and Technical Assessment (MTA) Fund, Paul Robinson, Research Director, has compiled a comprehensive summary of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project (UMTRAP), entitled: "Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Performed by the U.S. DOE: An Overview."

Uranium mill tailings cleanup started in 1978 following passage of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA). UMTRAP was created as result of the Act, and has since provided the impetus for the development and use of a wide range of reclamation technologies - multiple-layer covers; low-angle, armored, erosion-resistant side slopes; and long-term post-closure care plans - that are used for uranium and other mill tailings sites world-wide. The UMTRCA legislation originally specified cleanup at 24 sites in 10 states. However, several of the original 24 sites have been consolidated for reclamation, and others removed. The "Overview" demonstrates that, though almost all of the surface remediation has been completed at the UMTRAP sites, significantly more effort and time is needed before groundwater clean-up work at the sites is completed.

The groundwater cleanup portion of UMTRAP program has proven to be extremely challenging to complete. Asserting that the cost of clean-up technology necessary to attain applicable standards is too high, DOE has sought Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval for groundwater remediation projects that include combinations of:

  • weakened groundwater standards - called "alternative concentration limits" or "supplemental standards," allowing for higher levels of contaminants to remain in the groundwater,
  • monitored natural attenuation (natural processes that dilute and/or contain contaminants),
  • Institutional controls on water use (permanently restricting future use of water to prevent spread of contamination), and
  • active groundwater remediation.

Supplemental standards have been sought, and attained, at 12 of the UMTRAP sites - Durango, Colorado; Grand Junction, Colorado; Naturita, Colorado; New Rifle, Colorado; Old Rifle, Colorado: Slick Rock, Colorado; Shiprock, New Mexico; Lakeview, Oregon; Falls City, Texas; Green River, Utah; Monticello, Utah; and Salt Lake City, Utah. However, a decade ago eight sites - Tuba City, Arizona; Monument Valley, Arizona; Durango; Gunnison; Grand Junction; Shiprock; Salt Lake City; and Falls City - still showed ground water contamination exceeding applicable standards. Pollutants exceeding standards at the sites included a combination of uranium, selenium, cadmium, molybdenum, radium, arsenic and/or nitrate.

Currently, following adoption of supplemental standards, natural attenuation and/or institutional control on future water use, and active groundwater remediation, work was still being conducted to address contamination at three UMTRAP sites - Tuba City, Arizona; Shiprock, New Mexico; and Monument Valley, Arizona. These sites are three of the four UMTRAP sites located on Native American land. The fourth site is Mexican Hat, Utah, and all four are located on the Navajo Nation.

According to 2003 monitoring data from the Tuba City site, contamination that exceeds standards for uranium, molybdenum, selenium and nitrate remains on site, and active ground water remediation was projected to continue through year 2011. The 2003 monitoring data from the Shiprock site shows contamination exceeding standards for uranium, radium, selenium, cadmium, nitrate and gross alpha radiation in a pollution plume in the ground water approximately 1.6 miles long and 0.75 mile wide. DOE projects that active ground water remediation will continue at the site through at least year 2012, in addition to reliance on natural flushing for contaminants in the portion of the Shiprock plume that has reached the San Juan River floodplain. And the 2001 data from the Monument Valley site identified ground water containing uranium, radium, nitrate and possibly gross alpha radiation at levels exceeding standards in a plume 1.0 mile long and 0.5 mile wide.

The cost of the UMTRAP program to date has far exceeded initial estimates and far exceeds the value of the uranium produced from the uranium mills that operated at these tailings sites. DOE's initial estimates of UMTRAP program cost, provided to Congressional committees in 1978 during hearings on the UMTRCA legislation were in the $150 - 200 million range. By 1996, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that all UMTRAP costs, including completion of surface remediation, groundwater remediation, and long-term surveillance, would exceed $2.4 billion. DOE's use of passive remediation, supplemental standards and institutional controls have reduced costs by $400-$600 million. Current estimates of the total cost of the UMTRAP program, including long-term surveillance and maintenance, are anticipated to reach $2 billion.

DOE estimated in 2000 that the cumulative program cost since 1978 was $1.476 billion dollars. This cost far exceeds the value of the uranium produced at the sites. All operations at the UMTRAP mills were conducted to provide uranium for government purchase and use in nuclear weapons development prior to 1970. For this period uranium prices were set by the Atomic Energy Commission - the sole lawful owner of uranium prior to that time - at $8.00/pound. The $1.476 billion spent on UMTRAP through 2000 amounts to $12.67/pound for the 116.53 million pounds produced from the UMTRAP sites. The cost of clean-up is more than 50% higher than the original value of the uranium when it was produced!

Several lessons can be learned from the DOE UMTRAP efforts. As indicated in the "Overview," a broad range of technological and policy innovations have been developed and applied to accomplish something that had never been done before - reclaiming uranium mill tailings piles to prevent release of radioactive and hazardous materials they contain. These technologies and policies have become some of the fundamental tools for addressing radioactive, hazardous and other mine waste challenges around the world, many of which include pollution and remediation challenges similar to that of uranium mill tailings. The cost of the UMTRAP effort has been enormous and will continue to grow for many years. The cost of waste site remediation is especially high when:

  • remediation is planned and conducted after the facility producing the wastes has closed and the facility abandoned; and
  • no efforts are made to control airborne or water borne pollution during operations.

The potential risks from hazardous uranium mill tailings and other radioactive and hazardous wastes never go away. They remain at the site and require monitoring and maintenance activities in perpetuity. This is particularly true when heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and uranium are present, posing potential risks.

The "Overview" was prepared to help people interested in or affected by radioactive waste and hazardous waste cleanup to understand the origin and scope of the first large-scale radioactive waste clean-up program in the world. In addition to identifying the cost and performance of the UMTRAP, it provides citizens, waste remediation specialists, and decision-makers access to a toolkit that includes legal and regulatory examples and technical and public involvement methods that have been implemented during its 25-year period.

The methods provided by the UMTRAP program had been used for uranium mill tailings remediation in many countries other than the U.S. A major focus of SRIC's international work (see Karamken article) has been directed at insuring that the standards and technologies used for the UMTRAP sites to serve as baselines for remediation of other uranium mill tailings and mine waste sites. This work has been pursued in Germany, the Czech Republic, Canada and Russia. It has been a focus of information exchanges with citizens and specialists in those countries, as well as Spain, Romania and Niger.

The "Overview" can be found on SRIC's website: http://www.sric.org/U_Mill_Tailing_Remediation_05182004.pdf

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"Some people in the community were behind mining, [they] thought, mining is good for money. Some Navajo families were compensated for [past] mining on their lands. They were rich for a while. But it seems like to Navajos or native people, it's not good for us. As of today, I've seen these families suffer; many are gone from alcoholism, and [many] didn't spend the money in the right way. There's nothing there, now they're suffering again. This is almost where we're headed again. In the long run, I think it's not made for the native people to be so rich off the Earth. Uranium mining, it's like it's an omen."

--Mitchell Capitan,
Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining

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