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2017-01-11 / Top News

Low price of uranium slows expansion of mine near sacred Mato Tipila

By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News Today Health & Environment Editor


The Ross uranium mine near Mato Tipila (top right) had five license violations and non-compliance reports during its first year of operations. 
COURTESY/Peninsula Energy Ltd. The Ross uranium mine near Mato Tipila (top right) had five license violations and non-compliance reports during its first year of operations. COURTESY/Peninsula Energy Ltd. SUNDANCE, Wyo. –– In the wake of dismal 2016 profits from uranium production worldwide, Peninsula Energy Ltd. has decided to shelve Ross uranium mine and mill expansion plans slated near the tribally significant Mato Tipila.

Better known as Devil’s Tower National Monument, Mato Tipila is a Native American sacred site in Crook County in the northern Black Hills.

The Australian company, through its wholly owned subsidiary Strata Energy Inc., had proposed an 8,000-acre Kendrick Expansion Area here of the Ross in-situ leach (ISL) mine and mill, which received a radioactive materials handling license for the original 1,721 acres of the project in 2015.

A “challenging” market situation prompted operators to request the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to "cease all review activities related to the Kendrick amendment application for SUA-1601," according to a Dec. 8 announcement by the company.

“While the present uranium market is challenging, Peninsula is insulated from current prices through its existing long-term contracts,” it announced. “By implementing a managed production ramp-up the company is well positioned to sustain itself through the current uranium market and then to expand quickly when the market improves,” it said.

According to the Australiabased UX Consulting Services, uranium had the worst record of any commodity on the market in 2016, hitting a 12-year-low, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The Ross Mine and mill finished its first year of operations in the economic slowdown attributed to ample stockpiles of the radioactive fuel for power plants and weapons, as well as to public outcry forcing shut-downs of nuclear installations in Germany and Japan after the 2011 disaster caused by the Fukushima atomic energy plant accident.

Peninsula Energy Ltd. announced completion of Strata’s first yellow-cake delivery from Ross in situ leach uranium mine to an unnamed U.S. utility client on Jan. 5, 2016.

The ISL mining and milling process requires extraction of ground water from the ore-bearing geological layer, mixing it with acid, injecting it through the formation to dissolve the target mineral, and processing the result at an on-site installation into concentrated radioactive yellow cake, a powder used in producing nuclear energy,

The yellow cake, along with the hazardous waste from the process, is stored on site and shipped on highways for further processing and disposal. The used mine water is held in evaporation ponds and released on the surface or underground.

In the first year of operations at the Ross, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission logged five company license violations and reportable events committed by operators.

On Oct.1, they had a 1,000- gallon spill of injection solution; on July 19, they had a 1,620-gallon spill of retention pond water; on June 1, they had a 500-to-600-gallon spill of recovery solution; and on April 27, a pond monitor indicated another release.

Strata Energy said the April event was “likely a result of natural variation in shallow groundwater quality.”

To permit mining, the federal government has removed, or “exempted”, the mine water table from access for any future drinking water use, because the water cannot be restored to its original quality after in situ leaching.

The state of Wyoming is in the process of trying to take over the uranium mining and milling permit process from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The commission granted the Ross hazardous materials handling license despite contentions raised at administrative hearings by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Powder River Basin Resource Council. The nonprofit groups questioned water and cultural resource impacts of the project.

The proposed expansion area has more than 5,000 abandoned drill holes from the early days of uranium exploration. The old wells in the area could serve as conduits for water contamination from Strata’s project, according to Powder River Basin Resource Council Director Shannon Anderson.

Uranium exploration in the area dates back to the 1950s. Strata Energy Inc. began conducting exploration in 2008.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission updated its Tribal Policy Statement in a Federal Register release on Jan. 9. The statement is designed to promote effective government-to-government relationships through agency-wide guidelines.

It addresses the commission’s tribal consultation process, saying it “provides opportunities for appropriate tribal officials or representatives to meet with NRC management or staff to achieve a mutual understanding between the NRC and the Tribes of their respective interests and perspectives.”

However, it stops short of addressing the Programmatic Agreement process, which is the one that the government has used to allow uranium mining and development to proceed while the tribes are unready to decide how much cultural resource impact is at stake.

The NRC allowed Strata Energy Inc. to move ahead under the terms and conditions of a 2014 Programmatic Agreement (PA) to protect cultural resources within the Ross project boundary.

UX Consulting said demand in the uranium market will increase in years ahead.

“In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, many reactor projects worldwide have been delayed, and in some cases, new reactors have been cancelled,” it said. However, it added, China, India and a sprinkling of other countries are expecting to create a nuclear buildup.

This could lead to a 9-percent increase in demand for uranium by 2020, and a 46- percent increase by 2030.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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