Cameco avoids fine for spilling waste on U.S. 191

Thursday, July 13, 2017 8:20 AM
A Cameco Resources truck leaked radioactive sludge onto U.S. Highway 191 on March 28-29, 2016, triggering a review by federal nuclear regulators.
Workers clean up radioactive waste that spilled from a truck en route to the White Mesa mill south of Blanding in 2016.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided against fining a Wyoming uranium mine that spilled radioactive waste on U.S. Highway 191 south of Blanding, Utah, last year.

In a June 29 letter to mine owner Cameco Resources, the federal commission concluded that a fine of $35,000 was not necessary because of the company’s acceptable corrective action plan and previous inspection record.

“To encourage prompt identification and comprehensive correction of violations, I have been authorized not to propose a civil penalty in this case,” wrote Scott Morris, deputy regional administrator for the NRC.

However, Cameco might face increased inspection, and “significant violations in the future could result in civil penalty,” Morris said, because of the severity of the violations issued to the company after the spill.

Twice a year, the mill accepts the radioactive sludge for permanent storage in its certified waste-containment cells. Barium sulfate is a normal byproduct of the Smith Ranch in-situ uranium mine in Converse County, Wyoming.

In 2015, a waste shipment leaked en route to the White Mesa mill. In 2016, a more severe leak spilled the toxic sludge onto the highway, leaving a trail of white paste behind the truck. It is not known how much of the 12 cubic yards of waste spilled in route. The driver said the load shifted and leaked after he braked hard near Meeker to avoid a deer.

After the 2016 leak and spill, nuclear regulators halted Cameco shipments. Then an inspection in November 2016 revealed nine shipping violations, triggering corrective actions and public hearings to explain what went wrong.

In a May 4 hearing with the NRC about the nine shipping violations, Cameco outlined how it corrected the way it ships barium sulfate sludge to the White Mesa uranium mill south of Blanding.

“We have completed what we believe are comprehensive corrective actions to address and prevent occurrence of each violation,” said Brett Berg, president of Cameco Resources, during the enforcement conference and public hearing.

Cameco said it would begin using new containers designed for sludge and pond sediments, and place the waste in industrial bags before it goes into containers. Cameco also said it would add dunnage to fill voids in the load to keep it from shifting, and wo8uld add improved absorbent polymer to keep free water from sloshing around.

The inspection also revealed the company was misclassifying radioactive waste at a lower level than the actual shipment. Cameco said it has adjusted its testing methodology in order to classify radioactive waste accurately and would sample and test each waste shipment before transport, rather than take limited samples. Officials also said the company has improved hazardous materials training.

After Cameco has completed its improvement plan, it will request another inspection. If approved, Cameco could be authorized to resume barium sulfate shipments to the White Mesa uranium mill.

“They cannot resume shipments until they complete all the actions they promised to take, and we conduct inspections to verify that,” said Victor Dricks, public affairs officer for the NRC.

Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group that has been critical of the uranium mining industry, expressed disappointment at the lack of a fine.

“We expect that rigorous action be taken to hold the uranium industry accountable if more spills occur in the future,” Anne Mariah Tapp, law and policy adviser, said in a news release. “NRC has an obligation to protect the multitude of western communities located on the transport routes for radioactive material traveling to the White Mesa Mill. This is particularly important for the White Mesa community of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which is located only three miles from the mill and is most at risk from the cumulative impact of the spills, emissions, and leaks that occur at that facility.”