Nuclear regulators are concerned that a Wyoming uranium mining company, which twice spilled nuclear waste in southeast Utah, may have a larger safety culture problem after it was issued nine violations for lax shipping practices.
During a conference hearing Thursday in Arlington, Texas, Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection director Scott Morris urged Cameco Power Resources to review all its mining operations.
“The substantial programmatic issues give us pause, and begs the question of safety culture,” Morris said. “We encourage you to take a broader view, not just transportation, because our concern is that it could go beyond that.”
Cameco operates the Smith Ranch in-situ uranium mine in Converse County, Wyoming. Twice per year, they truck containers of barium sulphate, a radioactive mining byproduct, to waste containment ponds at the White Mesa Mill, located south of Blanding, Utah, on U.S. Highway 191.
The company suspended shipments in 2016 after a March 28-29 incident in which the waste leaked from a shipping container and spilled onto the highway. An Aug. 19, 2015, shipment also leaked en route to the mill.
An investigation revealed that the containers were inadequate to transport the waste material.
Cameco president Brent Berg acknowledged violations issued by the NRC, and vowed to solve the problems.
“We have completed what we believe are comprehensive corrective actions to address and prevent occurrence of each violation,” Berg said.
Corrective actionsMike Thomas, Cameco’s director of safety for the Smith Ranch mine, detailed the correction plan during the two-hour hearing, which was open to the public via phone conference.
He said after the 2015 leak, the company repaired faulty seals on the rear doors of the shipping containers and added bentonite to the sludge to absorb free water. They believed that solved the problem.
But after the more significant March 2016 leak and spill, “we realized we took too narrow of a focus,” Thomas said. “It was not just the door, it had also come out of the top of the lid. In addition, the driver had braked hard near Craig to avoid a deer.”
The NRC inspection revealed a multitude of waste transportation issues at the company, including radioactive waste misclassified at a lower level than the actual shipment, which led it being shipped in the wrong container.
The company now will use new containers designed to handle sludge, Thomas said, and will bag the waste before it goes into the container. Dunnage will be added to fill voids in the load to keep it from shifting, and improved absorbent polymer will be added to prevent free water from sloshing around.
The container fits more tightly, Thomas said, and is designed to withstand vibration in the 600-mile route from the Wyoming mine to White Mesa disposal cell.
Cameco has also adjusted its testing, to classify radioactive waste accurately. Cameco will sample and test each waste shipment before transport, rather than take limited samples. Hazardous materials training has also been improved at the company, officials said.
“We are striving to improve, and are being more proactive,” Thomas said. “We should have had more of a questioning attitude.”
The NRC will conduct further inspections of Cameco facilities, and will decide within 40 days whether penalties and fines are warranted.
Ute Mountain tribe wants noticeMembers of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe have claimed that the White Mesa Mill and waste containment facility threatens groundwater supplies. The two Cameco spills further alarmed residents, and during a community meeting in October, they complained that they weren’t notified, pointing out that tribal members walk the highway where the spill occurred.
Energy Fuels disputed the charges, saying its mill complies with Utah environment regulations and the mill was properly cleaned, officials said.
When The Journal asked why the spills were not immediately reported, NRC staff said on Thursday that the spills weren’t severe enough to require immediate public notice.
But NRC and Utah officials say it is unknown how much of the waste may leaked out of the container during spill on March 28-29, 2016. The shipment began with 13 cubic yards of waste, but Ryan Johnson, of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the shipment’s load upon arrival at the White Mesa mill was not determined before it was dumped into a waste cell.
During transport, there was a winter storm that would have washed away road contamination, “making it impossible to determine when the leaking of the transport began,” reported Scott Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, in a letter to the NRC.
After the spill, survey of the 600-mile route did not reveal radiation levels above background, officials said.
Whether weighing waste shipments at the White Mesa waste site to ensure it all arrived would be within the regulatory purview of the Utah Department of Environment, Morris said.
“It’s a good question, and one we could follow up on with the state of Utah,” he said.