There are 24 inactive uranium mills in the country, which in their time generated about 26 million tons of radioactive residues called tailings. The Environmental Protection Agency, in the closing days of the Carter administration, proposed standards for disposing of the tailings, a process to be carried out by the Department of Energy. The proposal was sharply criticized by the uranium industry, which argued that the standards were unreasonable and unnecessarily costly.

Industry feared the standards, if adopted, would influence the regs that EPA is also developing for active uranium mills.

EPA now plans to relax a number of the inactive site standards, although not to the extent urged by industry, according to a draft of the final rule obtained by the Environmental Policy Center. In the document, EPA said the revisions are intended "to make implementation easier and less costly" but will not result in any increased threat to health or the environment.

EPA hopes to issue the rule by the end of October, after reviewing comments from DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Office of Management and Budget, according to Dr. Stanley Lichtman, the EPA staff member directing the project.

The Carter EPA proposed that tailings be stabilized for "at least 1,000 years;" the draft final rule suggests "200 up to 1,000 years." The proposed standard listing permissible emissions for radon, a radioactive gas given off by the tailings as they decay, was increased and water protection standards were eliminated.

David Berick of the Environmental Policy Center said, "Only a 200-year containment period does not accurately reflect the hazards you're talking about." He said the change "was indicative" of the whole approach taken, which he finds "disturbing."