Utah Corp. Importing 136 Tons of Radioactive Material from Japan; Public Comment Not Allowed

(EnviroNews Utah) — Blanding, Utah — Energy Fuels Resources USA Inc.’s (Energy Fuels) White Mesa Mill is importing 136 tons of radioactive material from Japan, and the public has no say in the matter, according to the Salt Lake Tribune – Utah’s most widely circulated newspaper. The shipment was approved without the need to open it to commentary from interested parties beyond the government and the corporation. Curtis Moore, Vice President of Marketing and Corp Development for Energy Fuels told EnviroNews it is scheduled to arrive “within a year.”

When applying for the permit, Energy Fuels asserted the materials from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency should be treated as ore and not waste. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s (DAQ) Uranium Mills Radioactive Materials program agreed and the go-ahead was given.

Because the White Mesa Mill already has a permit to process ore, it wasn’t required to submit the plan for the 136 tons of Japanese material for public comment. It is allowed to treat this load the same way it treats imported ore from Canada. The shipment contains uranium-loaded sands, resins and carbon left over from experimental uranium extraction techniques, and natural uranium-bearing ores.

“Calling it ‘radioactive material’ is a little misleading,” Moore said in an email to EnviroNews. “It is classified as uranium ore, and it contains recoverable quantities of natural (unenriched) uranium… Because it is not enriched, it is only mildly radioactive.”

As reported previously by EnviroNews, the late Dr. John Gofman, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkley, Professor Edward P. Radford, physician and epidemiologist, and Jeff Patterson, DO, former President of Physicians for Social Responsibility are just a few amongst countless health experts who agree: there is no “safe” level or dose of ionizing radiation. The ingestion or inhalation of internal particle emitters is known to be especially hazardous.

“The reason this waste from Japan was able to be accepted without any type of public hearing is due to the specific classification,” Grace Olscamp, Communications and Outreach Associate for HEAL Utah, wrote in an email to EnviroNews. “Usually, citizens can provide input on these decisions during a public process — like the one that happened this summer when Energy Fuels wanted to import waste from Estonia and thousands of citizens commented in opposition. But without a public process, there’s no way to have that direct input,” she continued. “Right now, citizens can ask and pressure their Utah state legislators to take action on transparency issues like this.”

White Mesa Mill, the only conventional uranium mill in the U.S., is just south of Blanding, Utah, near the original boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument. It produces yellowcake uranium for commercial nuclear plants. The importation and processing of hazardous materials so close to sacred ground has activists up in arms.

Energy Fuels Resources’ White Mesa Mill

“Indigenous communities on the Colorado Plateau have been unknowingly and unwillingly bearing the brunt of pollution from uranium mining and milling for far too long,” said Talia Boyd, Cultural Landscapes Program Manager for the Grand Canyon Trust. “Now Energy Fuels wants to ship in radioactive contaminants from Japan and Estonia. Our communities have rights to clean air, land, and water and to our cultural landscapes.”

Ute Tribe Protesting White Mesa Uranium Mill

“For Energy Fuels to say ‘just accept it’ highlights the true exploitative nature of the industry and ongoing nuclear colonialism of indigenous communities,” Boyd concluded.

While the Colorado Plateau produces ore with a similar concentration of uranium, low global prices for uranium make it less profitable to process than these “alternate feeds.” According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the White Mesa Mill rarely processes traditional ore anymore. Instead, it seeks out opportunities to recycle materials that have already gone through some processing. Often, the company is paid to take these materials, which environmentalists say makes the mill a waste disposal facility.

This episode wouldn’t mark the first time the company has imported radioactive substances from Japan though, albeit before the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. In 2005, Energy Fuels, under different management, imported 500 tons of uranium-contaminated soil from Japan. It, too, was labeled as “ore” when both companies involved in the transaction confirmed that it came from a mine and not from tainted tailings. The distinction seems arbitrary to many opponents, who still call it “waste.”

“Oaktree’s principles and policies for responsible investing call for Oaktree’s opposition to this waste-disposal plan, for it is fraught with environmental racism and injustice,” Kamran Zafar, Field Attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust, wrote in a letter. Oaktree Capital Group owns a majority stake in Neo Performance Materials (Neo) — a company that has partnered with Energy Fuels to help the White Mesa Mill begin refining rare earth minerals. Neo has signed the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment.

Randal Reid, Neo’s Chief Legal Officer, said the company is committed to sustainable and environmentally responsible principles and practices:

We are proud of Neo’s decades-long history of producing advanced materials that form the building blocks of many sustainable, clean energy, and greenhouse gas-reducing technologies, and of the fact that we carefully follow all applicable laws and regulations as we produce our advanced materials. We believe that recycling this material is supportive of these goals given that it ultimately enables climate-friendly nuclear energy, lessens the need to mine uranium, reduces the need for direct disposal of this material, and helps to accelerate the world’s migration away from coal-fired power generation.

Japan’s own history with radioisotopes, including being blasted with American atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns, makes it easy to see why the country might want to export them. But with Utah’s downwinders and a checkered history with uranium mining, environmentalists wonder why the state would want to accept more of the dangerous elements – elements that have already devastated a portion of the state’s population. Olscamp summed up the problem with radioactive materials in Utah this way:

Here in Utah, every part of the nuclear fuel cycle has hurt our people and natural world. From the nuclear testing in Nevada that blew radioactive fallout into southern Utah and created downwinder communities, to the uranium mining that sickened families and uranium milling — like at Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill, that has poisoned the groundwater. Utah’s Native communities have often shouldered the brunt of these impacts as well.

White Mesa Mill’s original 15-year permit in 1980 from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allowed the mill to process domestic uranium ore according to KUER. The NRC relicensed the mill in 1987 and in 1997. In 2005, the mill was licensed by the State of Utah. Between 2007 and 2017, the mill operated without a license according to The Salt Lake Tribune; the delay in processing the company’s permit came from state bureaucracy, building an in-house computer model for the White Mesa Mill site, and negotiations between the entity and the state.

“If you lived in White Mesa or Blanding … in 1979, you would have thought that by 1994 the trucks going to and from the mill would be gone, that the mill wouldn’t be running, that it wouldn’t be putting out smoke,” said Aaron Paul, an attorney with the environmental advocacy group Grand Canyon Trust, at a hearing in May. “Yet here we are in 2020 [and] it’s continuing to operate.”

Many opponents are afraid of another Monticello, where a mill producing uranium and vanadium operated from 1942 to 1960. Thousands of cubic yards of uranium and heavy metal waste left residents with contaminated water, air, and buildings. Residents experienced elevated cancer rates. Declared a superfund site in 1986, taxpayers were left with the cleanup bill.

Another scenario that residents and environmentalists fear is the example of what happened at the Moab mill-tailings site. The cleanup was initially supposed to cost $6 million but ballooned into a billion-dollar project. The owners “declared bankruptcy and walked away” leaving taxpayers to pay for it and residents to deal with the toxic legacy, Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates explained to EnviroNews in a video interview about abandoned uranium mines.


Anrnie Gundersen and Emerson Urry Discuss Utah’s Uranium Mining and Milling

For a company that has applauded the Trump Administration’s efforts to revive the U.S. uranium industry, opponents say these imports from foreign countries are dubious at best. Still, Energy Fuels persists. “We think it’s certainly beneficial to recycle [these] materials that have already been mined out of the ground [and] try [to] make something useful out of it,” said Moore.

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