U.S. won’t fine company for spilling radioactive sludge

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The agency that regulates the U.S. nuclear industry will not fine a Canadian uranium mining company for twice spilling low-level radioactive sludge outside a Utah waste disposal facility, giving the company credit for efforts to prevent the problem from recurring.

Saskatoon, Canada-based Cameco faced a $35,000 fine from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Commission officials told Cameco they won’t seek a fine in part because the company plans in the future to store the barium sulfate sludge in bags within the trucks.

“However, significant violations in the future could result in a civil penalty,” NRC Deputy Regional Administrator Scott Morris wrote the company June 29.

Cameco is pleased to have resolved the problem to the NRC’s satisfaction, company spokesman Gord Struthers said Wednesday.

Shipments of barium sulfate sludge from the Smith Ranch in-situ uranium mine and processing facility in northeast Wyoming will resume after the NRC has signed off on Cameco’s corrective measures, Struthers added.

In a public conference before NRC officials in Arlington, Texas, in May, Cameco officials had asked the NRC not to fine the company, saying the spills didn’t endanger anybody.

The leaks happened on two occasions, in 2015 and 2016. Both times, low-level radioactive waste leaked from trucks from a Wyoming uranium processing facility.

The first time, sludge sloshed over the back of the truck when the driver braked hard to avoid hitting a deer. The second time, sludge leaked from a faulty door in the truck container.

Workers noticed the leaks after the trucks arrived outside Energy Fuels Resources’ White Mesa Mill waste disposal facility near Blanding, Utah. Subsequent testing found no elevated radiation along the roughly 600-mile shipment route through Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

The NRC determined that Cameco committed nine rule violations. All were on the low end of the agency’s severity scale but five were serious enough to warrant fines, according to the NRC.

The white, paste-like sludge that spilled is a normal byproduct of in-situ uranium mining, in which water mixed with oxygen and baking soda dissolves uranium out of underground sandstone deposits. The resulting uranium-laden solution is then processed into yellowcake and nuclear fuel.

Cameco Resources’ Smith Ranch-Highland mine in eastern Wyoming is the biggest in-situ uranium mine by production volume in the U.S.

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