I’d like to thank Chairman Udall for holding this hearing. I know the issue of uranium mill tailings remediation is of special concern to him and before that, to his father, Congressman Mo Udall, with whom I had the pleasure of serving in the House. I understand and share his concerns since we have one such site in Gore, Oklahoma. The Sequoyah Fuels Corporation operated as a uranium processing facility until 1992. In 2002, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reclassified its wastes, bringing it under the authority of the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, authored by Congressman Udall.
The operations at many of these uranium mines and mills spanned decades and the associated remediation must also. This is a source of great frustration to many people impacted by these sites. I look forward to learning about the progress these agencies are making to clean up the federal government’s uranium mining and processing legacy from the Cold War.
In preparing for today’s hearing, I am struck by the contrast between the levels of public health protection in the early decades of uranium mining with the requirements placed on modern day operations. NRC and EPA regulation of these facilities appears fairly comprehensive from groundwater protection requirements for In Situ Leach (ISL) mining to storage and disposal of tailings from conventional mines. For example, tailings can only be stored in specially constructed, “zero-discharge” facilities, with multiple liners and leak detection systems. Mill operators must also provide financial surety adequate to completely decommission the mill and reclaim the site. It is my hope that this thorough regulation of modern uranium mining reflects the lessons of our past, but does not inhibit the successful development of such facilities.
Our nation’s economy depends on plentiful supplies of clean, affordable energy. Nuclear energy makes a crucial contribution to our energy supply, providing nearly 20% of our electricity – clean electricity that doesn’t emit air pollutants. I hope to see this clean energy source grow in the near future. As our demand for uranium increases, it makes sense to me that we should harness domestic resources of uranium to a practical extent. This not only enhances our energy security, but also creates jobs: up to 300 jobs at each conventional mine and another 300 jobs at uranium processing mills.
We can’t lose our focus on important efforts to clean up past activities, but we can’t allow that legacy to obscure our development of clean energy. Modern uranium mining is vastly different from the government’s unfettered activities in the 1950’s. It is safer, cleaner, and supports the increased use of nuclear energy to meet our energy security needs. We need to maintain a balance between adequate protection of public health and safety, and the timely licensing of new uranium production facilities while we continue solving the uranium legacy left over from the Cold War.