Radioactive material from Japan is heading to San Juan County

(Photo courtesy of Energy Fuels Resources USA Inc.) The White Mesa Mill in southeast Utah is the last conventional uranium mill operating in the United States.

A uranium company’s controversial request to import 2,000 drums of radioactive material from Estonia drew so many comments this summer that state regulators are still sifting through them months later.

But a separate proposal to ship 136 tons of radioactive material from two atomic research sites in Japan across the Pacific Ocean to the White Mesa Mill just south of Blanding was approved in July without public hearings.

The difference between the two applications is in how the material is classified, according to Phil Goble, manager of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Uranium Mills Radioactive Materials program.

The material from Japan is a mix of natural uranium-bearing ores and materials left over from testing uranium extraction techniques by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, including uranium-loaded sands, resins and carbon.

Energy Fuels, the company that submitted the applications, argued the Japanese materials should be classified as ore or ore equivalents under Nuclear Regulatory Commission definitions, meaning it would follow the same regulatory process as if Energy Fuels were importing freshly mined ore from a Canadian uranium mine. Goble said the state agreed with that assessment.

The Estonian material, on the other hand, is a byproduct of tantalum and niobium production at a metals plant near the Baltic Sea. It contains 0.23% uranium mixed in with other contents, including other radioactive minerals, and no facilities in Estonia are licensed to receive the material. The powder is classified as “alternate feed,” which unlike natural uranium-bearing ores, requires additional state approval before it can be imported from overseas.

Goble said the state “received more public comments regarding this [Estonia] action than we have in the past,” adding the comments are still being reviewed. The department hopes to have a decision on whether to grant Energy Fuels' permit request before the end of the year, though there is no firm deadline.

Energy Fuels said it will recycle both the Japanese and Estonian material into yellowcake uranium that can be used in nuclear reactors. In both cases, over 99.7% of the material will be disposed of in the mill’s tailings facilities once the uranium is extracted, which is allowed under the mill’s operating permits.

The mill is located a few miles from Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands in San Juan County near the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, and various governmental entities and environmental groups have publicly opposed the Estonia plan. The San Juan County Commission, the Utah Navajo Commission and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe all submitted letters to the state this summer requesting that regulators reject Energy Fuels' request to import the material from Estonia.

“Estonia, Japan, where will the radioactive waste come from next?” said Yolanda Badback, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal citizen and member of the White Mesa Concerned Community group, in a statement. “Our ancestors' remains were dug up to build the mill, and burying waste near them impacts us today. We’re concerned about pollution of our well water. We’re concerned about our young ones and our elderly in our Ute community, and our health is affected by the mill. We want the mill shut down and cleaned up, not more waste coming here from all over the world.”

But Energy Fuels has said that it is in compliance with all state and federal safety regulations regarding groundwater discharge below the mill site. And Curtis Moore, the company’s vice president of marketing and corporate development, defended the import plans.

“We think it’s certainly beneficial to recycle ... these materials that have already been mined out of the ground,” Moore said, “and try to ... make something useful out of it, especially something that produces clean energy like nuclear.”

Alternate Feeds

Due to depressed global uranium prices, the company rarely processes traditional ore to produce yellowcake even though uranium ores mined on the Colorado Plateau have a similar concentration of uranium as the alternate feed materials, according to documents Energy Fuels filed with the state.

On an investor call last month, Energy Fuels' CEO Mark Chalmers said that the company is currently producing yellowcake from alternate feeds, which has “traditionally been a $5 million to $15 million a year recycling business” for Energy Fuels. In many cases, the mill is paid to accept the material, prompting some environmentalists to argue the mill is essentially functioning as a radioactive waste disposal facility, a characterization the company disputes.

The White Mesa Mill has received material from at least one of the sites in Japan previously. In the early 2000s, the Japanese government faced mounting pressure from local residents to remove the uranium contaminated soils from a site in the Tottori Prefecture, and Japan’s Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the soil had to be cleaned up or authorities would face fines.

The following year, White Mesa Mill, which was then under different ownership, imported 500 tons of uranium-contaminated soil from the site for processing.

Environmentalists worried the decision could set precedent for turning southeast Utah into a world depository of radioactive materials, with one activist telling The Salt Lake Tribune at the time that the importation of the Japanese soil was “a scenario for a nightmare,” a sentiment echoed by critics of the latest import plans who fear they open the door to more shipments from abroad to the doorstep of tribal lands.

“Indigenous communities on the Colorado Plateau have been unknowingly and unwillingly bearing the brunt of pollution from uranium mining and milling for far too long,” said Talia Boyd, cultural landscapes program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust. “Now Energy Fuels wants to ship in radioactive contaminants from Japan and Estonia. Our communities have rights to clean air, land, and water and to our cultural landscapes. For Energy Fuels to say ‘just accept it’ highlights the true exploitative nature of the industry and ongoing nuclear colonialism of Indigenous communities.”

Rare Earth Minerals

Energy Fuels' relationship with Neo Performance Materials, a Canadian company that owns the plant in Estonia, extends beyond the proposed alternate feed transaction. In April, Energy Fuels announced its entry into the U.S. rare earth elements market through an upgrade of capabilities at the White Mesa Mill, and Constantine Karayannopoulos, then an executive at Neo, was brought on as an adviser in May. In July, Karayannopoulos became the CEO and President of Neo Performance Materials, and Energy Fuels later announced a partnership with Neo.

“We have entered into a non-exclusive Letter of Intent with Neo Performance Materials under which Neo will provide technical and commercial assistance to the [Energy Fuels],” Chalmers said in August, “and both companies will work together toward potentially creating a longer term mutually beneficial relationship.”

Chalmers added the White Mesa Mill could begin producing rare earth concentrates within the next year, and the letter of intent with Neo may involve commitments to buy and sell all or a portion of the concentrate.

Karayannopoulos served in various executive positions at the U.S. company Molycorp, the world’s largest producer of rare earth minerals outside of China, before the company filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

Oaktree Capital Group LLC, Molycorp’s biggest secured creditor, helped resolve the bankruptcy proceedings, transferring most of Molycorp’s assets to Neo Performance Materials, and Oaktree still owns a majority stake in Neo.

In July, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and 17 conservation organizations signed a letter to Oaktree, which is a signatory to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment, urging it to block the deal.

“Oaktree’s principles and policies for responsible investing call for Oaktree’s opposition to this waste-disposal plan, for it is fraught with environmental racism and injustice,” the letter argued. “It also represents a threat to the widely beloved Bears Ears National Monument and interferes with the efforts of the five Native Nations (the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni) who have tirelessly pushed to protect the monument.

Neo responded to the environmental groups, contesting several of the letters' assertions, including its reference to the Estonian material as “waste.” Oaktree declined to comment for this story.

In a statement to The Tribune, Randal Reid, Neo’s chief legal officer, said the company is committed to sustainable and environmentally responsible principles and practices.

“We are proud of Neo’s decades-long history of producing advanced materials that form the building blocks of many sustainable, clean energy, and greenhouse gas-reducing technologies, and of the fact that we carefully follow all applicable laws and regulations as we produce our advanced materials,” Reid said. “We believe that recycling this material is supportive of these goals given that it ultimately enables climate-friendly nuclear energy, lessens the need to mine uranium, reduces the need for direct disposal of this material, and helps to accelerate the world’s migration away from coal-fired power generation.”

Moore said the letter of intent between Energy Fuels and Neo is primarily related to Neo’s rare earths processing expertise, and is not directly related to the alternate feed deal. The letter of intent does not mean that the White Mesa Mill will be accepting more alternate feed from Neo facilities in the future, he said.

“China controls something like 90% of the [rare earths] global market,” Moore said. “And … you need rare earths for everything from ... iPhones to wind turbines to ... military applications.

“There’s a lot of effort right now to see if we can bring back some of this rare earths production to the United States,” he continued. “We basically produce no rare earths in the United States even though we consume a lot of them, so we’re trying to see if there’s a role that [Energy Fuels] can play.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.