Shutdown after uranium-tainted water spills at Wyoming mine
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A Wyoming uranium mine halted some operations following two spills of water tainted with relatively low levels of the radioactive element, including one spill that was among the biggest on record for the industry in the top uranium-producing state.
The spills happened at Ur-Energy’s Lost Creek mine 70 miles (43 kilometers) northeast of Rock Springs. A more than 200,000-gallon (757,000-liter) spill Aug. 18, followed by a 10,000-gallon (38,000-liter) spill Tuesday, prompted Littleton, Colorado-based Ur-Energy to partially halt operations.
Workers shut down part of the mine unit where the spills occurred so equipment could be inspected, company officials told Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality regulators in an email on file with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and posted by the NRC online.
The water contained relatively low levels of uranium, federal and state regulators said Friday.
“The level of activity is very low and would not be a danger to public health and safety and both spills were contained on site,” NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said.
How long the equipment was to be shut down while Ur-Energy officials investigated the ruptured pipes that caused both spills was unknown. The bigger spill flowed about 350 yards (meters) though workers were able to recover 3,200 gallons (12,100 liters) with a vacuum truck.
Company officials did not return messages seeking comment.
Lost Creek is an in-situ mine made up of a network of wells scattered across mostly federal land in the remote high desert.
Some wells pump a mild chemical solution underground to dissolve uranium from sandstone. Other wells pump water containing dissolved uranium to the surface.
The uranium-bearing water is then processed into yellowcake, a substance that can be refined into fuel for nuclear reactors. The water used is recycled and reused at the mine.
Samples of the Aug. 18 spill showed 24 parts per million of uranium, an amount consistent with uranium solution pumped from the ground. However, most of the water spilled was probably headed underground and contained only 1.2 ppm of uranium, mine officials wrote.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uranium limit for public water systems is 0.03 ppm, or 40 times less than 1.2 ppm. Uranium in the water spilled Tuesday measured 1.1 ppm, according to the company.
“They’re just more evidence in a long line of spills, accidents, well failures and other problems at our uranium facilities here in Wyoming, and yet more evidence this industry has a lot of issues,” said Shannon Anderson with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowner advocacy group.
Other problems at the Lost Creek mine in recent years included a spill of 1,500 pounds of powder-form uranium called yellowcake inside a building. Six workers inhaled the substance which spilled days before the mine delivered its first shipment in 2013.
Wyoming is in the process of taking over primary regulatory authority of its uranium mining industry from the NRC. With NRC approval, the process could be completed next year.
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