Spent fuel storage pools at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in New Hill, N.C., operated by Progress Energy, seen last month.
WASHINGTON — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted hastily in concluding that spent fuel can be stored safely at nuclear plants for the next century or so in the absence of a permanent repository, and it must consider what will happen if none are ever established, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.
The Indian Point nuclear power plant on the banks of the Hudson River in Buchanan, N.Y. The initial 40-year licenses at the two operating reactors there expire in 2014 and 2016.
In a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that in deciding that the fuel would be safe for many decades, the commission did not carry out an analysis of individual storage pools at reactors across the country, treating them generically instead. The commission also did not adequately analyze the risk that cooling water will leak from the pools or that the fuel will ignite, the court wrote.
The commission has relied on its conclusion that spent fuel rods can be safely stored at plants to extend the operating licenses of dozens of power reactors in recent years and to license four new ones.
The plaintiffs — four states, including New York, environmental groups and an American Indian organization — declared victory, although the precise implications were not clear. Still, it appeared that the commission would have to prepare and publicly defend an assessment that storage for many decades or even indefinitely did not entail large risks.
In the 1980s, Congress directed the Department of Energy to prepare a plan for creating a national repository at Yucca Mountain, a volcanic structure in the Nevada desert about 100 miles from Las Vegas. But that plan, decades behind schedule, was shelved in 2010 by President Obama, who had promised in his 2008 campaign to kill it if elected.
Some Republican lawmakers are now hoping to revive the idea of storage at Yucca but would face determined opposition, above all from the leader of the Senate’s Democratic majority, Harry Reid of Nevada.
“The commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository,” the appeals court wrote.
If the federal government “continues to fail in its quest” to find a place for spent nuclear fuel, then the material “will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis,” the court said, and the commission will have to size up the environmental risks of this.
Failing to establish a repository is “a possibility that cannot be ignored,” the judges said.
A spokesman for the regulatory commission said that its lawyers were studying the ruling and that they would have no immediate comment.
New York State officials said they hoped the ruling meant that the commission would have to complete a sweeping analysis of waste storage at reactors before extending the licenses of the Indian Point reactors in Westchester County, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants shut down. The initial 40-year licenses at the two operating reactors there expire in 2014 and 2016.
John J. Sipos, a state assistant attorney general, said the safety rule that was at issue in the case had effectively taken “the waste issue off the table” in license renewals in recent years.
“We think that at Indian Point and other facilities going through license renewal, those issues will be back on the table,” Mr. Sipos said. He added that the commission’s analysis will have to cover whether waste should be moved out of the spent fuel pools and into sealed steel-and-concrete capsules called dry casks. The analysis will also have to address what the environmental impact of the casks will be if no burial site is built, he said.
A spokesman for Entergy, which owns the reactors at Indian Point, around 40 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, said, “There is no reason to believe this issue will affect the current schedule for license renewal proceedings.”
The industry’s main trade association, the Nuclear Energy Institute, said it was disappointed by the ruling but urged the commission “to act expeditiously to undertake the additional environmental analysis.” It would not comment on whether any licenses would be affected.
Geoffrey H. Fettus, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council who argued the case, said that because of Friday’s ruling, “this is the first instance where the long-term implications of our nuclear waste disposal policy will have to be given a hard public look.”
Opponents of nuclear power have long cited the lack of a firm plan for a waste burial place in opposing license extensions for reactors. In the meantime, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan last year have sharpened a debate about how the fuel is stored now.
Most of it is kept in deep pools made of steel-reinforced concrete and lined with stainless steel, in water that is monitored and filtered. At most plants those pools have been packed full, and some older fuel has been moved into dry casks.
Such casks have survived floods and earthquakes without apparent damage, and some experts have called for thinning out the pools and filling up more casks. The commission has said that either method is acceptable.
The fear is that if a pool leaked or if cooling failed and the pool boiled dry, the fuel could catch fire, although many experts doubt this is possible.
In its ruling on Friday, the court said the commission had reached its conclusions by examining past leaks. But that history “tells us very little about the potential for future leaks or the harm such leaks might portend,” it wrote.
HOBSON — At the back of a South Texas uranium processing facility, a few dozen black container drums stood outside, waiting to be shipped. Each was filled with about $50,000 worth of yellowcake, a powdery substance created from raw uranium.
Axel Gerdau for The Texas Tribune
This uranium processing plant in Hobson hopes to increase the 200,000 to 250,000 pounds of yellowcake it produces each year.
“That’s pretty close to a Lexus in every drum,” said Gregory Kroll, the superintendent of the site, which is run by the Uranium Energy Corporation, based in Corpus Christi. The company mines the uranium in Duval County and brings it here for processing, before sending it on to a plant in Illinois, where it is further refined.
Company officials hope that the Hobson plant will increase its yellowcake production, now at 200,000 to 250,000 pounds per year, far below the plant’s capacity. Uranium has been mined in Texas for decades, but companies see a potential hike in demand for their product. They are ramping up for a new push, despite concerns from environmental groups that past operations have not been sufficiently cleaned up and pose a threat to aquifers that people drink from.
Last year, the Texas Railroad Commission granted five new permits for uranium exploration in Texas, more than in any year since 2007. Two more exploration permits are being processed, one in Bee County and the other in Goliad County and both sought by Uranium Energy.
Uranium companies’ enthusiasm may seem surprising, given the shock waves caused by last year’s nuclear disaster in Japan. Even Texas’ two nuclear plants felt the jolt: both had been planning expansions, but that talk has subsided.
But companies like Uranium Energy are anticipating increased long-term demand for nuclear power from places like China and Saudi Arabia. Also, a big source of supply for American power plants is set to end next year, with the expiration of a program in which uranium from old Russian warheads is diluted and sent to power plants in the United States.
Dale Klein, the associate director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the Russian warhead program could be renewed. Nonetheless, he said, “I think the demand for uranium will continue to increase.”
Texas, Mr. Klein added, is a “key player, but they’re not a big player” in global uranium production, which is led by Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia.
Only six uranium mines are operating in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. Two are in Texas, in Brooks and Duval Counties, two are in Wyoming, and one each is in Nebraska and New Mexico. Texas has less than one-tenth of the reserves of Wyoming, the leading state, according to the latest energy agency data, from 2008.
South Texas has long been a hub for uranium mining. The metal, derived from ancient volcanoes, is found in a soluble form in aquifers. Often it lies near oil and gas deposits, a result of the way both substances have traveled through fissures in the ground. (Indeed, some of the mining and processing facilities lie in the booming Eagle Ford Shale.)
Today all mining in Texas is done through a process called in-situ leaching, in which oxygenated water is sent into the aquifers to dissolve the uranium. The fluid that comes back up runs through resin pellets that clamp onto the uranium. The resin, which is reusable, is transported to facilities like Hobson, which remove the uranium and turn it into yellowcake.
In past decades, open-pit mining was the norm, but that stopped in Texas in 1992, according to Kevin Raabe, an official with Rio Grande Resources. The old open-pit mines are supposed to be “reclaimed,” or filled with materials like clean soil that cover the uranium. Mr. Raabe’s company manages an old open-pit site in Hobson where Chevron began mining uranium in the 1970s. Cows graze over where the pit used to be.
Some residents seem unperturbed by the old mine sites around South Texas.
“We have a reclaimed uranium pit on our property,” said Jane Mutz, a Falls City resident with land near Fashing. “We eat the fish out of the tank,” she added, referring to a large watering hole.
But Richard Lowerre, an Austin lawyer with Lowerre, Frederick, Perales, Allmon & Rockwell, has been fighting uranium companies for decades and said that many former open-pit mining areas remain unsafe for human habitation.
As for the modern in-situ mines, the companies are supposed to restore the quality of the aquifer to its condition before the mining began, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which issues mining licenses and regulates the operations, by designation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (The Railroad Commission’s permits cover exploratory wells only.)
Mr. Lowerre and other critics say that companies never do a full cleanup of aquifers.
A 2009 report by the United States Geological Survey found that most Texas uranium well fields contained a higher concentration of uranium after mining was completed than before.
Mr. Raabe acknowledged challenges, but he said that the water was nonpotable in any case. “Does it really matter if there’s 0.3 parts per million uranium in the water before you started mining and when you ended up, it ends up at 0.8?” he said. Both numbers, he said, are “orders of magnitude above the drinking water standards.”
The industry also says that the uranium is essentially immobile — a point contested by environmentalists, who say it can migrate very slowly.
“In the 40 years this industry has been active, there’s never been a well, private or public, that’s been harmed by this process,” said Harry Anthony, chief operating officer for Uranium Energy Corp.
George Rice, a San Antonio-based hydrologist who has testified for opponents of a uranium operation in Kleberg County, said that might be the case but that the issue is inadequate monitoring. “If contamination has occurred, they haven’t looked for it,” he said of mining companies.
In Kleberg County, the legal wrangling centers on restoration of a site called the Kingsville Dome, which has been mined periodically over the years but is currently not operating. The county, represented by Mr. Lowerre’s law firm, and the mining company, Uranium Resources Inc., are disputing issues related to the standards the company must meet for cleanup. A trial resumes in early May.
Mark Pelizza, a senior vice president of U.R.I., said the company, which could resume mining on the site, would “certainly like to see the issue revolved.”
Another fight is in Goliad County, where Mr. Anthony’s company wants to begin mining uranium in the Evangeline Aquifer but has run into opposition. The aquifer is the county’s sole water source and “could be significantly harmed” by uranium mining, according to a letter last month to the Environmental Protection Agency from a group that includes the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District and Blackburn & Carter, a Houston law firm. Mr. Anthony said that is the “same old stories we’ve heard for 40 years, and none of it is ever true.”
The E.P.A. is considering an “aquifer exemption” permit for the Goliad County operation — something all in-situ uranium mines need before proceeding. Mr. Anthony complained that the requirements from the E.P.A., which has been studying the permit since Texas officials approved it last year, are unprecedented.
The E.P.A. is also considering new national standards for monitoring of in-situ sites.
An abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo reservation in Cameron, Ariz., emits dangerous levels of radiation.
By LESLIE MACMILLAN
CAMERON, Ariz. — In the summer of 2010, a Navajo cattle rancher named Larry Gordy stumbled upon an abandoned uranium mine in the middle of his grazing land and figured he had better call in the feds. Engineers from the Environmental Protection Agency arrived a few months later, Geiger counters in hand, and found radioactivity levels that buried the needles on their equipment.
Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Lucy Knorr says her father’s death was related to his work at the mine.
Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Larry Gordy discovered the mine on his land in 2010, but it has not been cleaned up yet.
Joshua Lott for The New York Times
At a mine in Cameron, Ariz., the radioactivity levels exceeded Geiger counters’ scales.
The abandoned mine here, about 60 miles east of the Grand Canyon, joins the list of hundreds of such sites identified across the 27,000 square miles of Navajo territory in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico that are the legacy of shoddy mining practices and federal neglect. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the mines supplied critical materials to the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
For years, unsuspecting Navajos inhaled radioactive dust and drank contaminated well water. Many of them became sick with cancer and other diseases.
The radioactivity at the former mine is said to measure onemillion counts per minute, translating to a human dose that scientists say can lead directly to malignant tumorsand other serious health damage, according to Lee Greer, a biologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. Two days of exposure at the Cameron site would expose a person to more external radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers safe for an entire year.
The E.P.A. filed a report on the rancher’s find early last year and pledged to continue its environmental review. But there are still no warning signs or fencing around the secluded and decaying site. Crushed beer cans and spent shell casings dot the ground, revealing that the old mine has become a sort of toxic playground.
“If this level of radioactivity were found in a middle-class suburb, the response would be immediate and aggressive,” said Doug Brugge, a public health professor at Tufts University medical school and an expert on uranium. “The site is remote, but there are obviously people spending time on it. Don’t they deserve some concern?”
Navajo advocates, scientists and politicians are asking the same question.
The discovery came in the midst of the largest federal effort to date to clean up uranium mines on the vast Indian reservation. A hearing in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led to a multiagency effort to assess and clean up hundreds of structures on the reservation through a five-year plan that ends this year.
Yet while some mines have been “surgically scraped” of contamination and are impressive showpieces for the E.P.A., others, like the Cameron site, are still contaminated. Officials at the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy attribute the delay to the complexity of prioritizing mine sites. Some say it is also about politics and money.
“The government can’t afford it; that’s a big reason why it hasn’t stepped in and done more,” said Bob Darr, a spokesman for the Department of Energy. “The contamination problem is vast.”
If the government can track down a responsible party, he said, it could require it to pay forremediation. But most of the mining companies that operated on the reservation have long since gone out of business, Mr. Darr said.
To date, the E.P.A., the Department of Energy and other agencies have evaluated 683 mine sites on the land and have selected 34 structures and 12 residential yards for remediation. The E.P.A. alone has spent $60 million on assessment and cleanup.
Cleaning up all the mines would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Clancy Tenley, a senior E.P.A. official who oversees the uranium legacy program for the agency in the Southwest.
Some say the effort has been marred by bureaucratic squabbles and a tendency to duck responsibility. “I’ll be the first to admit that the D.O.E. could work better with the E.P.A.,” said David Shafer, an environmental manager at the energy agency.
Determining whether uranium is a result of past mining or is naturally occurring is “a real debate” and can delay addressing the problem, Mr. Shafer said. He cited seepage of uranium contaminants into the San Juan River, which runs along the boundary of the reservation, as an example. “We need to look at things like this collectively and not just say it’s E.P.A.’s problem or D.O.E.’s problem,” he said.
E.P.A. officials said their first priority was to address sites near people’s homes. “In places where we see people living in close proximity to a mine and there are elevated readings, those are rising to the top of the list for urgent action,” Mr. Tenley said.
Agency officials said they planned a more thorough review of the Cameron site — which still has no warning signs posted — within the next six months.
Meanwhile, Navajos continue to be exposed to high levels of radioactivity in the form of uranium and its decay products, like radon and radium. Those materials are known to cause health problems, including bone, liver, breast and lung cancer.
Lucy Knorr, 68, of Tuba City, Ariz., grew up near the VCA No. 2 mine operated by the Kerr-McGee Corporation, now defunct. Her father, a former miner, died of lung cancer at age 55 in 1980, and her family received a payout of $100,000 under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a law that was enacted after her mother hired a lawyer and testified before Congress.
The program has awarded $1.5 billion for 23,408 approved claims since it was enacted in 1990.
Ms. Knorr’s father was one of hundreds of Navajos who did not wear protective gear while working in the mine. “He’d wash at a basin outside” after leaving the mine, she said, “and the water would just turn yellow.”
The government has been successful in tracking down and holding some former mining companies accountable. The E.P.A. is requiring that General Electric spend $44 million to clean up its Northeast Church Rock Mine, near Gallup, N. M. Chevron is paying to clean up the Mariano Lake Mine, also in New Mexico.
When the government cannot locate a responsible party, which is most often the case, the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy work with the tribal authorities to reach cleanup decisions. In general, the E.P.A. handles mines, while the Energy Department is responsible for the mills where the ore was processed and enriched.
One of the Department of Energy’s biggest priorities is a billion-dollar uranium mine cleanup that is under way in Moab, Utah, and that received $108 million in federal stimulus money and the backing of nine congressmen.
Some Navajo officials point out that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a 20-year moratorium on new uranium and other hard-rock mining claims on one million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon in January, saying it was needed to preserve the mile-deep canyon and the river that runs through it. The mining industry is challenging that decision in court.
But the Navajo Nation, considered a sovereign government entity, has not gotten similar treatment from the federal government for its land, some of its officials say. The nation has asked for $500 million for mine cleanup, but the money has not materialized, said Eugene Esplain, one of two officials with the Navajo E.P.A. responsible for patrolling an area the size of West Virginia.
Taylor McKinnon, a director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that worked to halt new mining claims near the Grand Canyon, said the Cameron site was the worst he had seen in the Southwest. He has even seen cow droppings near the mine, he said, an indication that cattle are grazing there. And “people are eating those livestock,” he said.
Ronald Tohannie, a project manager with the Navajo advocacy group Forgotten People, said the locally grown beef was tested at the slaughterhouse, but not for the presence of radioactive substances like uranium.
When E.P.A. officials in the California office overseeing the region were asked to accompany a reporter to the Cameron mine site, they countered with an offer to visit the Skyline Mine in Utah, on the northern boundary of the reservation in Monument Valley, where a big federal cleanup was completed last October.
The onetime mine, atop a 1,000-foot mesa, provides a sweeping panorama of the red valley below. Just one tiny dwelling is visible, the packed-earth hogan of Elsie Begay, a 71-year-old Navajo woman. Ms. Begay was featured in a series of articles in The Los Angeles Times in 2006 about serious illnesses that several of her family members developed after living in the area for many years.
The publicity “might have bumped the site up the priority list,” said Jason Musante, who oversaw the $7.5 million cleanup of the mine for the E.P.A.
In trailers and cinder-block dwellings on the Navajo reservation, there is deep cynicism and apprehension about the federal effort. “That’s what they want you to see: something that’s all nice and cleaned up,” said the Navajo manager of a hotel near the Skyline mine. He asked not to be identified, saying that he had already come under government scrutiny for collecting water samples from the San Juan River for uranium testing at a private lab.
For some Navajos, the uranium contamination is all of a piece with their fraught relationship with the federal government.
“They’re making excuses, and they’ve always made excuses,” Ms. Knorr said. “The government should have had a law in place that told these mining companies: you clean up your mess when you leave.”