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New Agreement Hopes To Boost Uranium Production, Worrying Environmentalists

Strata Energy is one of Wyoming's users of in situ uranium extraction
Cooper McKim

A new agreement signed in Wyoming hopes to boost domestic uranium production. Alongside Gov. Mark Gordon, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Kristine Svinicki and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed a Memorandum of Understanding that shifts certain authorities to the NRC.

"It's my hope that the U.S. never again becomes as dependent on imported uranium as we are today and that hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, related to uranium mining are created here in Wyoming and elsewhere in our country," said Wheeler.

The EPA is traditionally responsible for regulations related to uranium mining. In 2015, the Obama administration considered the first comprehensive rule-making for in situ recovery - the most recently dominant form of uranium recovery. It was aimed at preserving groundwater quality.

In 2018, the EPA withdrew from that rule and is now withdrawing completely from regulation concerning in situ recovery activities.

"The possibility of regulatory risk here in the United States threatens to chill investment. A decision taken at the end of the last administration threatened to impose significant burdens on uranium producers," said Wheeler.

The Wyoming Mining Association commended the move as did Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso. In a press release, he said the EPA and NRC answered his call to help the state's uranium production.

"The Trump administration is limiting unnecessary regulations and making it easier for American companies to do business. Nuclear power is clean and reliable. It provides carbon free energy and creates good paying jobs. This agreement will help preserve Wyoming's uranium industry," said Barrasso.

Not everyone is thrilled with the agreement. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit environmental advocacy group, argued the EPA is choosing to turn a blind eye to water-polluting activities.

"This is such a dangerous practice that oxidizes metals right off the rock. It changes the groundwater chemistry, literally. So, you have to watch for a long period of time and that's not required now," said Geoff Fetus, NRDC Senior Attorney. "This is environmental law 101: characterize properly, restore properly, and monitor properly for the long term. That's what's not happening now, and it needs to happen."

He said, instead, it looks like the EPA is walking away from setting any standards from the activity that threatens western water.

"The first thing you're doing is you're allowing harm without a protective process for uranium mines and the water that will be impacted. And second, we don't really know, without the strict monitoring, what the long-term damages and harms and costs are going to be and who's going to be picking up that tab," Fetus said.

Wheeler said the environmental protections will be the same as they have always been.

"I'm sure under your leadership and your administration, that the regulations and policies you have in place here in Wyoming, your home, won't change as far as uranium mining is concerned. So, you'll still have the same safeguards. There's nothing that we're doing today on the Memorandum of Understanding that will change or require any change to safeguards you've put into place here in Wyoming," he said.

Wyoming leads the nation in uranium production. The country, though, is currently facing a 70-year low in production with the resource available cheaper overseas.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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