State Outraged Over NRC Finding on Uranium Mill Licensing Process
by Gus Jarvis
Mar 22, 2012 | 1607 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DENVER - The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment responded sharply last week to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, rebuking the federal agency for interjecting itself into litigation to which the federal agency is not a party. The NRC last week issued a finding that the CDPHE did not meet federal standards during the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill licensing process, a charge the state agency rejects.

This is the latest development in Energy Fuels’ lengthy licensing process of its Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in the Paradox Valley. The response comes while the CDPHE defends itself in a lawsuit filed by mill opponents over concerns about its approval process and sets up a previously unforeseen battle between the state agency that has jurisdiction to approve such projects (Colorado is an NRC Agreement State) and the federal agency that ultimately granted that power under the Federal Atomic Energy Act.

In the lawsuit filed by the environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance, along with the towns of Ophir and Telluride last January, one of the primary claims is that the CDPHE did not offer adequate public hearings during the license application and review process. In a March 6 letter to Sheep Mountain’s legal representative, the NRC not only substantiated those claims but offered corrective suggestions that include clarifying the state’s regulatory language announcing the opportunity for public comment and public hearings for uranium mill licensing, as well as working with Energy Fuels to provide “an opportunity for a public hearing regarding the issuance of a new license” of the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill.

In responding to that NRC finding, Dr. Christopher Urbina, executive director and chief medical officer at the CDPHE, stated in a March 16 letter to the NRC that his department has not received any formal notification on needed “corrective actions” from the NRC. He went on to say that these claims by the federal agency at this stage of the approval process, and during litigation, is unwarranted.

“The department conducted a robust public process, including two public hearings and six additional public meetings,” Urbina stated. “For a federal agency to come along at this late date and appear to muddy the waters is an outrage to all the community members, stakeholders and others who took the time to participate in the public process regarding the radioactive materials license.”

In its letter to the NRC, the CDPHE requested a retraction or clarification to mitigate any damage done by the distribution of this mischaracterization to the press.

As part of the NRC Agreement State program, the NRC conducts reviews of state programs every two years. CDPHE Community Involvement Manager Warren Smith said during the most recent NRC review, his department raised the issue as to whether or not the state’s public hearing process follows federal regulations, and up until the March 6 letter, CDPHE understood that its processes were in line with federal standards.

“The NRC has been stunningly inconsistent on the public hearing issue,” Smith said in a statement obtained by The Watch. “We raised the issue with NRC on several occasions around the application process and 2010 program review. As recently as the October 2011 NRC review of the Colorado statute and regulations, no incompatibility or corrective action was identified. Later, we believe federal officials flip-flopped and said they were reconsidering their answer.”

The first time the CDPHE heard of any issue with its public hearing process, according to Smith, came on Feb. 27 when NRC officials sent a letter to the radiation program of the CDPHE’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division that “misstated” our previous conversations with them on the issue, giving the department until the end of March to respond.

“We asked for clarification on March 7, only to learn the NRC already had announced its predetermined decision in the March 6 letter without communicating this information directly to the state,” Smith said.

An official from the NRC said last week that the agency doesn’t intend to intervene or overturn any decision made by the CDPHE, but said the state agency was not in compliance with federal requirements and is asking that it put in writing on how it intends to respond.

gjarvis@watchnewspapers.com or @gusgusj

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