More than 10,000 tons of radioactive waste have been delivered from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma to the White Mesa Mill south of Blanding, Utah, to extract and recycle the uranium.
The waste from the former Sequoyah Fuels plant near Gore, Oklahoma, had been stored near the confluence of the Arkansas and Illinois rivers on tribal land for the past 50 years. The hazardous material is a byproduct of the process that turns yellowcake uranium into fuel rods for nuclear reactors.
Now, it will be processed through the White Mesa Mill, owned by Energy Fuels Resources Inc., to recover the uranium that can then be reused. The leftover waste will be stored at the mill in authorized containment cells.
The mill has Utah licenses to process uranium ore from mines and also for accepting and processing “alternative feed” radioactive waste material from cleanup sites across the U.S.
The removal was celebrated by the Cherokee Nation, but environmental groups and a Ute Mountain Ute Tribe town, also named White Mesa, near the mill are less thrilled about the facility accepting, milling and storing hazardous waste.
Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation said in a news release that the removal of the last of 511 semitrailer loads from their land was a “historic day.”
“Our lands are safe again now that we have removed a risk that would have threatened our communities forever,” he said.
But Yolanda Badback, a Ute Mountain Ute and member of the White Mesa Concerned Community group critical of the mill, said that while she’s glad the Cherokee are safer, there is an unintended consequence for her community.
“All those trucks driving the waste through this area is disturbing,” she said. “Our community lives downstream from the mill and those waste ponds, so that has always been a worry because we rely on well water.”
Regarding the removal of waste from the Cherokee Nation, Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore said in a statement to The Journal that the company was “proud to play a role in helping clean up the land of Native American communities.”
He said the material was carefully analyzed by regulators and determined to be suitable for recycling at the White Mesa Mill.
“It was transported, received and processed into clean, carbon-free energy at the mill with no issues,” Moore said. “No matter what the activists try to claim, the White Mesa Mill has an exceptional record of environmental and regulatory compliance.”
Badback said a preferred solution could have been to safely bury the waste where it was, which at one point, was considered by Sequoyah Fuels.
The Oklahoma uranium processing plant was opened by Kerr-McGee in 1970 and converted yellowcake into fuel for nuclear power plants. It was eventually sold to General Atomics under the name Sequoyah Fuels Corp.
In 1986, an accident at the plant killed one worker and injured dozens of others. Another accident in 1992 injured three dozen workers and prompted the plant to close in 1993. The closure left tons of radioactive waste behind.
In 2004, the Cherokee Nation and state of Oklahoma entered into a settlement agreement that required the highest-risk waste be removed from the site. The company announced in 2016 a plan to bury the waste, but a judge forced the company to comply with the original agreement.
Grand Canyon Trust, which sued the White Mesa Mill for alleged environmental and regulatory violations but lost last year on a dismissal, continues to press Utah regulators and the mill on operation and reclamation practices.
Amber Reimondo, energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, said the White Mesa Mill was designed 40 years ago to process mined uranium ore, not radioactive waste.
“The cycle of exposing tribal communities to radioactive waste continues as the Cherokee Nation is finally relieved of this dangerous material and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe sees it put in their front yard,” she said in a statement to The Journal.
Energy Fuels is seeking authorization from Utah regulators to build an additional 80 acres of waste-containment ponds in anticipation of improved uranium market conditions.
In July, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would investigate whether quotas should be imposed to force companies to purchase domestically mined uranium under the Trade Expansion Act.
According to a Nov. 28 Market Watch news release, Energy Fuels recently hosted a team of U.S. Department of Commerce investigators for a tour of the La Sal, Utah, uranium mines and the White Mesa Mill, the only conventional uranium mill operating in the country.
“We were pleased to have the opportunity to show the DOC investigators the high quality of our uranium production facilities, the vast uranium resources we have in our portfolio of projects and the expertise and professionalism of our people,” said Mark Chalmers, president and CEO of Energy Fuels. “We clearly demonstrated that domestic companies can supply the U.S. nuclear power industry and meet our national security needs well into the future.”