A former Soviet weapons plant near the Baltic Sea. The Ministry of Environment for the Republic of Estonia. An American investment firm. A Utah uranium mill. A Canadian rare metals company.
The controversial plan to ship 660 tons of radioactive material more than 5,000 miles from Estonia to San Juan County, Utah, involves a globe-spanning series of connections dating back years.
In 2019, Energy Fuels Resources, which operates the only conventional uranium mill in the United States near Blanding, Utah, applied for a permit to reprocess radioactive powder stored at the Silmet rare metals plant in Sillamäe, Estonia, for its uranium content.
The license application, which drew criticism from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and environmental groups, is still pending before the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, and although it involves material in Estonia, the parent company for the plant is headquartered in Canada and its board chair was recently hired as a consultant by Energy Fuels.
The Silmet plant was built to process oil shale in the 1920s and was later used by the Soviet Union to enrich uranium for nuclear reactors and weapons. In 2011, it was purchased by the American company Molycorp Minerals, which received approval from the Estonian Ministry of Environment to import ore from mines around the world to extract rare metals.
Although the plant stopped processing uranium in 1990, some of the ore contained small amounts of naturally occurring uranium, and when it was processed to extract the metals niobium and tantalum, a radioactive byproduct was left over. According to news reports in the Estonian publication Forte, Estonian environmental regulators made a deal with Molycorp that required the company to export the byproduct. There are currently no facilities in Estonia capable of accepting the material.
Molycorp filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015, however, and Neo Performance Materials Inc., a Canadian-based company that is majority controlled by the American investment firm Oaktree Capital Management, took over the Silmet plant. The material remained on site, a dry powder stored in more than 2,000 drums.
After a series of news articles were published by the Estonian press about regulatory storage limits on radioactive materials, the Silmet plant temporarily suspended some of its niobium and tantalum operations in 2019.
Energy Fuels agreed to purchase and import the material to its White Mesa Mill facility as “alternative feed,” meaning the drums, which are more than 0.05% uranium by weight, will be reprocessed into yellowcake uranium used in nuclear reactors.
The proposal was the subject of a public hearing in May where critics of the plan objected to the state’s classification of the Silmet material as ore, not as waste, which sets it on a different regulatory path.
Scott Williams, executive director of the environmental advocacy group HEAL Utah, called the alternate feed classification a “regulatory fine point” and a “kind of loophole.”
“Energy Fuels is going to be paid to take [the material] and then they’re going to make money selling it again when they refine it, which makes it sound more like waste,” Williams said. “When Energy Fuels is done refining it, they will then have what is considered waste, but they are licensed to store that waste on site.”
Curtis Moore, a spokesperson for Energy Fuels, said using the term “radioactive waste” to describe the Silmet material is a “ridiculous characterization.”
“This material is valuable, as it contains natural uranium that we’re recovering and recycling into fuel for clean nuclear energy,” Moore said.
Under its subsidiary Neo Rare Metals, Neo Performance operates a gallium production facility in Blanding that was first built in the 1980s.
“Gallium is used in applications such as electronics, LED lighting, medical treatments, and others,” said Neo Performance spokesperson Jim Sims. “Neo is consolidating gallium production at our Peterborough, Ontario, facility and, as such, is working to wind down operations in Blanding sometime this year.”
Sims and Moore said the White Mesa Mill and the Blanding gallium facility, which are located 6 miles apart, share “no operational connections."
But the two companies appear to have a relationship beyond the Estonian transaction. In May, Mark Chalmers, the CEO and president of Energy Fuels, announced his company was hiring Constantine Karayannopoulos, chairman of the board for Neo Performance, as a consultant to assist with Energy Fuels’ plan to begin producing more rare earth minerals along with uranium and vanadium in Utah.
"Energy Fuels is extremely excited to bring Constantine Karayannopoulos and Brock O'Kelley [a professor at the Colorado School of Mines and former Molycorp employee] on board to advance our entry into the rare earth space in the U.S.," Chalmers said in a May statement.
“We are quickly coming to the conclusion that the White Mesa Mill may be an ideal U.S. facility to process rare earth element ore streams and produce rare earth concentrates,” Chalmers continued. “Mr. Karayannopoulos and Mr. O'Kelley will assist Energy Fuels in the commercial and technical aspects of this endeavor.”
Oaktree Capital, which has a close to 70% ownership level in Neo Performance, declined to comment.
Chalmers called the mill’s pivot to rare earth mineral processing and its continued production of uranium "a remarkable clean energy story.” Rare earth minerals are used in numerous renewable energy applications, and nuclear power plants generate the majority of carbon-free electricity in the United States.
Residents of the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa, which is a few miles south of the mill, have long raised concerns about potential groundwater contamination from the site, however, and trucks transporting radioactive materials to White Mesa have leaked in the past.
“The facility has gone from being the North American continent’s dry low-level waste disposal facility of choice … to now being the world’s radioactive waste dump,” Scott Clow, the tribe’s director of environmental programs, told state regulators at a recent hearing.
“That is something the tribe opposes,” he added. “The tribe does not want these materials to continue to be delivered to their neighborhood, their traditional lands, and stored there forever.”
Williams raised similar concerns. “Is it safe to transfer this stuff halfway across the world, given all of the potential accidents that can happen along the way?” he asked. “And then is it safe for White Mesa Mill to handle this and store the waste given their history of environmental violations? And that gets to be what we call an environmental justice issue because most of the effects of White Mesa Mill’s problems have been visited on the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. ... The burden of environmental risk is by disadvantaged populations.”
Grand Canyon Trust, which unsuccessfully sued Energy Fuels in 2014 under the Clean Air Act, said the Estonian issue generated more engagement than usual with its supporters after a recent email newsletter.
“We're concerned about radioactive waste coming from overseas to White Mesa, and our supporters are too,” said Tim Peterson, the group’s cultural landscapes program director. “We've had two to three times the normal response on the Silmet waste that we usually see on calls to action around mill issues."
A recent request from Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart to extend the public comment period on Energy Fuels’ proposed license amendment through July 10 was granted by Utah regulators.
Clarification: This article has been updated to make it clear that historical Soviet ownership of the Silmet plant in Estonia is unrelated to the drums of material that could be processed at the White Mesa Mill. Additionally, there is no relationship between the gallium processing facility in Blanding and the White Mesa Mill, according to Neo Performance Materials and Energy Fuels Resources. A sentence causing confusion on that issue has been removed.