Nuclear Regulatory Commission slows decision about Church Rock uranium - Albuquerque Journal

Nuclear Regulatory Commission slows decision about Church Rock uranium

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission appears to have slowed its timeline for deciding whether to let another federal agency house uranium-contaminated debris on a mill site it regulates near Church Rock. Local Navajo people and Navajo Nation officials object to the plan, saying the proposal doesn’t move debris far enough away from the community.

“It’s very surprising to me, in a good way,” Eric Jantz, an attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said Thursday of the slowdown in the commission’s approval process contained in a May 4 letter.

“Typically, the NRC sits back and waits for formal appeals, but this time they got involved at a critical juncture,” said Jantz, who represents the Red Water Pond Road Association, an organization formed by residents who live near two large abandoned mines and the mill site just north of Church Rock. The center has litigated on behalf of the community for decades to force cleanup of abandoned uranium waste and to resist future uranium mining.

The slowdown by the commission follows a historic visit in April that NRC commissioners made to the Red Water Pond Road community, about 20 minutes northeast of Gallup. The commissioners wanted to see the mine and mill sites for themselves, and to hear what residents and Navajo officials, including Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, thought.

The EPA plan to move the uranium contaminated mine debris to the mill site, in the works for more than a decade, would clean up one of the largest abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. It’s one of more than 500 abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation. But it wouldn’t move the debris far, which is why Navajo residents exposed to the mine waste for more than 40 years oppose the plan.

Community members at the April visit urged commissioners to not allow the EPA to move the mine debris to the mill site that has itself been undergoing cleanup for years.

The mill is off Navajo land but still nearby, just a mile down the road. Residents and Navajo officials say it’s too close to homes, and that they don’t have confidence the mill site is safe enough to protect the community against future uranium exposure.

Jonathan Nez addresses a crowd after he was sworn in as president of the Navajo Nation in Fort Defiance, Arizona, in 2019. (Felicia Fonseca/Associated Press)

“The Navajo people in this area have lived with this for a very long time, so we plead with you, I plead with you, let’s get this waste, and get it way far away from the Navajo Nation,” Nez told commissioners during their April 22 visit.

“Our village is not on a main road. No one sees where we live. That is why they have not cleaned up the uranium waste,” community resident Edith Hood said Wednesday in a news release. “Hopefully, they will change course and take the materials away from our homes.”

In the letter, commissioners directed their staff to wait on issuing two final reports they need before issuing a final decision about whether the mill site can be used as a repository for the mine waste.

The delay allows the commission and its staff additional time to consider the proposal, according to the internal agency letter. It’s currently unclear when the NRC might issue the final reports.

“My hope is that based on what the commissioners heard that day that they are encouraging front-line staff to evaluate more closely the other options for waste disposal,” Jantz said. “And to work with the EPA and the community in particular to find a more appropriate method of disposing of the waste.”

New Mexico In Depth is a nonprofit news organization that produces investigative, data and solutions-rich stories that can be catalysts for change.

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