San Juan County, Utah, and the Navajo Nation have joined other groups to oppose a proposal by the White Mesa Mill in Blanding to accept radioactive material from Estonia.
Mill owner Energy Fuels Resources submitted an application to the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control to accept the material from NPM Silmet, a rare-earth production plant in Sillamae, Estonia. The company planned to extract uranium from the material to fuel nuclear power plants.
But environmental groups and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has a reservation community near the mill, have opposed the license amendment application, citing transport risks and public health and environmental concerns. They claim the containment ponds used to store leftover milling waste are outdated and need upgrades.
The White Mesa Mill processes uranium ore and accepts uranium material – known as “alternative feed” – from reclamation projects. The Ute Mountain Utes and Grand Canyon Trust have long been critical of the mill’s alternative feed program.
Now, after a 3-2 vote, San Juan County, Utah, commissioners have agreed to send a letter to state regulators opposing a 10-year proposal to import 2,200 tons of uranium material to the mill from Europe.
“It should not be the responsibility of Energy Fuels to assist other countries ... with disposing of their used radioactive waste here in our county at any level of radioactivity, large or small,” the July 2 letter says. “Clearly, the regulations in those areas do not allow for the long-term storage of byproduct from extraction, so why should we? No one else is willing to take this radioactive waste, so the applicant is requesting that the state of Utah allow it to use San Juan County as a dumping ground for the world.”
On June 22, the Navajo Utah Commission of the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution opposing importation of Estonian radioactive material to the White Mesa Mill.
According to the tribe’s resolution, “Local community members have concerns about the lack of oversight, safety and contamination of local groundwater resources on and around the White Mesa Mill.”
The resolution says the Navajo Nation is deeply committed to the protection of Indigenous sacred lands, cultural resources and Native people. It recognizes that Ute Mountain White Mesa community lives directly adjacent to the mill.
“The Navajo Nation and the Navajo Utah Commission, therefore, request that the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control reject this application to process and store waste from Estonia at the White Mesa Mill,” the resolution says.
Mill defends plan The White Mesa Mill can process uranium ore or alternative waste tailings and extract the uranium into yellow cake to make fuel rods for U.S. nuclear power plants. Chemicals left over from the milling are stored permanently in containment cells at the White Mesa Mill facility.
In defending its proposal, Energy Fuels pointed out it is recycling Silmet material into a clean energy resources for nuclear power.
“The Silmet material contains the same percentage of recoverable natural uranium as the highest-grade uranium mines in the U.S., meaning it is as valuable as mined ore,” said Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing for Energy Fuels. “Therefore, the Silmet material is a valuable resource that should be recycled and used in the production of carbon-free nuclear energy. At its heart, this is no different than any other recycling initiative, and it’s hard to believe anyone could be against a recycling project that also fights climate change.”
Moore said that since 1998, the White Mesa Mill has recovered about 6 million pounds of natural uranium.
This amount of uranium would produce the same amount of electricity as about 50 million tons of coal, he said, and produce the same amount of electricity as the annual output of 24,500 wind turbines.
“If approved, the Silmet recycling project will truly be a ‘win’ for San Juan County, the state of Utah, Energy Fuels, Silmet and the fight against air pollution and climate change,” Moore said.