Uranium Mines
While great progress has been made in the area of mine cleanup, many health and safety hazards still exist.

About Uranium Mines

The uranium mining industry began in the 1940s primarily to produce uranium for weapons and later for nuclear fuel. Although there are about 4,000 mines with documented production, a database compiled by EPA, with information provided by other federal, state, and tribal agencies, includes 15,000 mine locations with uranium occurrence in 14 western states. Most of those locations are found in Colorado , Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming, with about 75% of those on federal and tribal lands.

The majority of these sites were conventional (open pit and underground) mines. The mining of uranium ores by both underground and surface methods produces large amounts of bulk waste material, including bore hole drill cuttings, excavated top soil, barren overburden rock, weakly uranium-enriched waste rock, and subgrade ores (or protore). At some abandoned mine sites, ore enriched with uranium was left on site when prices fell, while transfer stations at some distance from remote mines may contain residual radioactive soil and rock without any visible facilities to mark their location.

While most pose minimal radiation risk to the public, since exposure is most likely to be short and intermittent (e.g., visitation, recreation), they may pose other physical safety risks.

Cleanup Efforts

FEDERAL AGENCY LEADS

  • U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
    • (licensed uranium recovery facilities and mill tailings sites — 12 conventional uranium mills and four in situ leach (ISL) facilities)
  • U.S. Department of Energy
    • (inactive tailings sites — currently 24)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
    • (all uranium sites not covered by NRC and DOE)
  • U.S. Land Management Agencies

To provide for the disposal, long-term stabilization, and control of uranium mill tailings in a safe and environmentally sound manner and to minimize or eliminate radiation health hazards to the public, Congress enacted the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978 (UMTRCA). This Act established two programs to protect the public and the environment from uranium mill tailings. Under Title I, DOE was charged with completing surface reclamation at 24 inactive uranium mill tailings piles. Under Title II, cleanup is occurring at 16 uranium recovery facilities currently licensed by the NRC.

Beyond the authority of UMTRCA, EPA has authority to protect the public and the environment from exposures to both the hazardous and toxic characteristics of uranium mining overburden, which are classified as “Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material” (TENORM). EPA frequently extends this authority to individual states, or federal land management agencies, which regulate the environmental impacts under clean water and clean air laws. These organizations also have a general authority to protect people and the environment from the adverse effects of mining activities.

EPA maintains a database that contains information on the approximately 15,000 mine locations with uranium.

Cost

In 1998, DOE testified to Congress that it would cost approximately $2.3 billion (in 1998 dollar value) to clean up the uranium ore processing facilities nationwide under UMTRCA. Because there are other uranium mines and overburden sites not included in this estimate, the total cost of uranium site cleanup is expected to be much higher than this limited estimate.

Priorities

Although several uranium mill tailings sites are on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), only two uranium mines are on the list: Midnite Mine, near Wellpinit, Washington, and the Fremont National Forest—White King/Lucky Lass Mines, Oregon. Both sites have progressed far enough in the Superfund process to have had a cleanup remedy selected in a Record of Decision. EPA has at least 30 sites on the NPL that have uranium contamination. These additional uranium sites are primarily processing facilities, tailings sites, and manufacturing sites.