Company wants to expand uranium mine in Nebraska panhandle

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July 20, 2011 - 7:00pm

When Nebraskans think about this state's connection to nuclear power, they probably think about the generating plants at Fort Calhoun and Brownville in eastern Nebraska. But there's another connection as well. Near the northwest Nebraska town of Crawford is a uranium mining operation, the beginning of the process of producing nuclear fuel. It's been there for about 20 years, and soon, it could get a lot bigger.

Down dusty gravel roads about five miles southeast of Crawford is the Crow Butte uranium mine. But there's not all that much to see. If you were expecting underground tunnels or a huge pit, with soil stripped away and trucks hauling around ore, you're likely to be underwhelmed by what appears to be a hillside covered with overturned garbage cans, or doghouses. General Manager Jim Stokey lifts one up to show a visitor what's underneath.


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Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News

Click the image to see photos of prospective mining land, land currently being mined and land in the process of being restored.


Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Click on image to see NDEQ information on uranium mining


Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News

Crow Butte GM Jim Stokey shows what's under wellhead cover.

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"This is an injection well," Stokey says. "This is where we inject water into the ground. It's about 400 feet deep, and this pipe that you see coming out of the ground right here is connected to that header house."

Stokey walks a short distance, and opens a header house - a small metal building with a set of pipes on one side to pump water out of the ground, and on the other, to put it back in.

"It's where we inject and recover water from the wellfield," he says. "And all of these wells that are out here, these square boxes that are connected with a pipe to that header house and then it's taken from that particular point right there via a trunk line back to the plant."



Ken Vaughn - Cameco spokesman


Those square boxes are well-head covers, to keep exposed pipes from freezing in the harsh winters here. Ken Vaughn, a spokesman for Cameco, the Canadian company that owns Crow Butte Resources, which operates the mine, describes the process from there.

"The water we're injecting is the native groundwater here on the site," Vaughn says. "We simply pump it up, add the oxygen and the baking soda, then pump it back down, then back up, now with uranium in it, strip the uranium out and continue the whole cycle again with the same water over and over again."

That's different from the hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," associated with natural gas. The work here is done chemically. The oxygen and baking soda draw out the naturally occurring uranium from the aquifer. After it's separated from the water, the uranium is processed into a powder known as yellowcake, and shipped off in oil drums for further concentration into nuclear fuel at other Cameco plants.



Hannan LaGarry - geologist/critic


But it's the process of getting it out of the water in the first place that concerns Hannan LaGarry, a geologist who lives in Chadron and teaches at the Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota.

"They're forcing oxygenated water down into the ground to force a chemical reaction that wouldn't normally occur," says LaGarry, "and in the process freeing trapped accessory minerals that co-occur with the uranium. And then this becomes a heavy-metal laden soup."

Company officials say they make sure that "soup" doesn't end up in anyone's kitchen faucet in nearby Crawford, even as they plan to expand to a new area just north of town. They say they clean the water and plug the wells once the uranium is mined.

And besides, they say, the water they use comes from the Chadron aquifer, which is separated by an impervious layer from the shallower Brule Aquifer. The Brule is the aquifer where the city of Crawford gets some of its drinking water, as do many nearby residents who rely on wells. Stokey says tests evaluated by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality confirm the two water sources are separate.

"We do pump tests to make sure that our aquifer has no communication with the Brule aquifer that's overlying that," Stokey says. With the testing that's been done, he adds, "the NDEQ is assured that we have no connection between the Brule and the Chadron formation."

But geologist LaGarry remains skeptical. He says cracks in the different layers of the Earth could connect the supposedly separate aquifers. If that's the case, "Eventually, it's likely that there will be communication of mining fluids outside of their mining area," LaGarry says. "There could be what's called an excursion outside their monitoring wells and potentially contaminate the overlying surficial deposits (and) the White River."

Company officials insist that won't happen. Vaughn says those issues have already been considered by state and federal regulators. "Anyone in this area should be very assured that we're operating in a way that protects the drinking water of the area," he declares.

As the company seeks to expand its operations to a new area just north of Crawford, it seems to have a lot of support from local residents. It's a major employer - Stokey says it has 69 employees, 20 long-term contractors, and about another 15 short-term contractors, and pays some of the best wages around. And at a hearing last month, the Crawford Clipper newspaper reported Mayor Terry Haugen estimated that the taxes Crow Butte pays save residents 25-30 percent on their property taxes.

Uranium mining's impact on the area could grow even bigger if the company's application to drill new wells on about 12 hundred acres just north of town is approved. Federal and state regulators are expected to make their decisions by the end of the year.

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