The increase in applications expected as interest in nuclear power grows poses a serious management challenge for the commission.
The U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian mining company last week sought permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the first uranium production facility in the United States in nearly 20 years.
The application by Oklahoma-based Energy Metals Corp. to construct and operate a uranium recovery facility at a ranch in Wyoming is just the first of more than a dozen expected over the next three years, including two more next month, NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.
The application indicates "the nuclear renaissance is real," said NRC Chairman Dale E. Klein in a statement. The heavy metal is key to nuclear power because reactors split uranium atoms to produce heat that turns water into steam, which drives a generator to produce electricity.
Because nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gases and other pollutants that contribute to global warming and acid rain, there has been a resurgence of interest in the industry. Power company executives, buoyed by tax incentives in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, have said they will seek licenses to build more than 30 new reactors in the coming years. But fueling those and other reactors expected to be built around the world will require more uranium.
In addition to requests for new facilities, the NRC anticipates that previously licensed facilities will seek permission to resume or expand operations.
The increase in applications poses a serious management challenge for the NRC, McIntyre said. "We have told industry that if the applications all come in at once, it's going to be a real logjam," he said. "Also, we need quality applications, as complete and technically accurate as possible."
The agency is now reviewing the Energy Metals application for environmental and safety factors, a process that will take about 90 days, McIntyre said.
Uranium can be extracted through open pit or underground mining, or through a process called in situ recovery, which is what Energy Metals proposes to do. This process involves injecting a leaching agent through wells into underground ore deposits to dissolve the uranium. The leaching solution is then pumped to the surface and processed to separate the uranium.
The in situ recovery process is much less disruptive to the surface, but precautions must be taken to ensure that underground drinking water supplies are not affected. Typically, water in the immediate vicinity of areas where there are high concentrations of uranium ore already is unsuitable for drinking.
If the NRC accepts Energy Metals' application, the agency will publish a notice in the Federal Register and the public may petition the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board for a hearing. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Wyoming will have to approve the plan as well. The entire approval process could take a couple of years, McIntyre said.
Neal Froneman, president and chief operating officer of Toronto-based Uranium One Inc., Energy Metals' parent company, said the application "is a landmark event. We look forward to becoming a leading uranium producer in the world's largest nuclear power generating market."