Canadian uranium company: No need for fine for sludge spills
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Canadian mining company Cameco has taken steps to prevent a repeat of two radioactive sludge leaks from a truck along a route from Wyoming to Utah and shouldn’t be fined for the spills, company officials told U.S. regulators Thursday.
The measures will include putting the barium sulfate waste into bags inside a shipment container that has a wide lip at the top to prevent any loose material from sloshing over the edge.
The leaks of low-level waste didn’t endanger anybody, an attorney for the company emphasized during a public conference with U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials in Arlington, Texas.
“Our view is that we should be focusing on actual consequences here, which are low,” attorney Tyson Smith said.
The NRC has identified nine possible rule violations by Saskatoon, Canada-based Cameco related to the spills in 2015 and 2016. Both spills occurred along the route between a processing plant for a Wyoming uranium mine and a disposal facility near Blanding, Utah.
The truck also crossed part of Colorado. Follow-up tests along the roughly 600-mile route revealed no elevated radioactivity.
The company has halted shipments of barium sulfate waste since the more recent spill in March, 2016.
The possible violations considered by regulators include not shipping the material in appropriate containers.
NRC officials plan to decide in the next six weeks what civil penalty, if any, they plan to pursue against Cameco. The conference Thursday was a routine part of the NRC’s enforcement process, NRC spokeswoman Maureen Conley said.
The white, paste-like sludge that spilled is a normal byproduct of in-situ uranium mining, a process that involves pumping water mixed with oxygen and baking soda into uranium-bearing sandstone deposits. A solution containing uranium is then pumped to the surface and processed into yellowcake, which can be processed further into nuclear fuel.
Wyoming is the top uranium-mining state in the nation and Cameco Resources’ Smith Ranch-Highland mine in eastern Wyoming is the biggest in-situ uranium mine by production volume in the U.S.
The 2015 spill occurred when the truck driver braked hard to avoid hitting a deer and sludge sloshed over the back of the shipping container. The 2016 spill resulted from a faulty seal along the bottom of the container door, company officials told the NRC.
In both cases, workers at White Mesa Mill identified the spills while the truck was still parked alongside U.S. 191 and cleaned up the material, according to a report by mill owner Colorado-based Energy Fuels Resources.
An NRC inspection identified a variety of possible problems besides the container design, including how Cameco tested and documented the radioactivity of the material.
Still, the company urged the NRC to classify any violations on the lowest of the agency’s four scales of severity — a classification that doesn’t result in a fine.
“Ultimately there was low actual safety significance. There were no exposures to members of the public,” Smith said.
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