Under modern state and federal regulations, uranium-mining companies are required to pay up front for any environmental reclamation necessary throughout the entire life of the operation, from the first strike of the shovel into the ground to the burial of the mill. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) regulations state, “Financial surety arrangements must be established by each mill operator prior to the commencement of operations to assure that sufficient funds will be available to carry out the decontamination and decommissioning of the mill and site and reclamation of any tailings or waste disposal sites.” For example, the Pinion Ridge Mill in Colorado is required to post $11 million in bonds, and Homestake Grants in New Mexico is required to post $33 million.
The surety bonds must cover the cost of reclamation and the complete decommissioning of the mine and mill. Reclamation includes any necessary remediation of the site, such as the re-shaping of a site’s contours after open-pit mining and re-vegetating disturbed land. Decommissioning entails closure of the mine, dismantling and disposal of the mill, and long-term monitoring of the site.
It is the operating company’s responsibility to mitigate any problems, such as contamination of ground water, shown to be a direct consequence of its activities. Surety bonds may be used to address any such problems.
The NRC and the state agency designated to regulate a particular operation (in Virginia, it would be the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy) review the amount of surety bonds required to be posted annually. They modify the monetary demands placed on mining companies according to any changing conditions.
Once site reclamation is completed, the NRC verifies that the tailings management facilities are adequate for long-term disposal. The land title for the tailings management areas is then transferred to the Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees the long-term care and maintenance of tailings facilities. DOE monitoring activities are site specific, but the minimal activities include an annual site inspection by DOE staff. They may include more frequent soil, air, and groundwater sampling.