On January 31, 2019, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requested comments on whether to re-open a rulemaking about groundwater protection from in situ recovery (ISR) uranium mining. The NRC is accepting public comments until May 3, 2019.
In situ recovery, or ISR, is a method of extracting uranium from the ground by injecting a solution of water and chemicals into geological formations containing the heavy metal and dissolving it out of the ore. Miners recover the resulting uranium-infused solution and process it to isolate and harvest the uranium. Although less disruptive than conventional uranium mining, ISR may contaminate aquifers within the formation where the ore is located. According to the NRC, ISR has been the “predominant means of extracting uranium in the United States” since the 1990s.
The NRC, which is authorized by the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) to license uranium mining operations, proposed in 2006 that it develop a regulatory framework tailored specifically to ISR. But NRC placed the rulemaking on hold in 2010 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which shares authority with NRC for regulating uranium mining biproducts under the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA), undertook its own rulemaking on the same topic.
After a five year process, EPA issued a proposed rule on ISR groundwater protection in 2015. Finding existing regulations inadequate, the proposed EPA rule would have required ISR mining companies to monitor affected groundwater for up to 30 years. This was cited as a top concern with the proposed rule by the mining industry. In response, EPA revised the proposed rule, replacing the 30-year monitoring requirement with criteria for approving groundwater stability that do not specify a certain monitoring period. EPA issued a revised proposed rule on January 19,2017, one day before President Trump’s inauguration.
During the comment period for that second proposed rule, NRC submitted comments objecting to EPA’s rulemaking, arguing that EPA had overstepped its jurisdiction and citing burdensome compliance requirements. Rather than complete this second rulemaking, the Trump EPA withdrew the proposed rule in October 2018. Now that EPA is no longer working on updating regulations for ISR uranium mining, NRC is revisiting the possibility of re-opening its own rulemaking.
If NRC re-opens and subsequently issues a groundwater protection rule, it would update mining regulations to reflect modern technology. ISR-specific regulations would address groundwater risks that are not a concern with traditional uranium mining.