The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed standards it says will protect the public from the health hazards of mill tailings from active uranium mines "for at least 1,000 years."
The standards are required by a 1978 law that sought to control radiation hazards from uranium mill tailings. The EPA established cleanup and disposal standards for inactive sites last January, and has established a program to control the disposal of new tailings.
However, the proposed rule published in the Federal Register last week was the EPA's first attempt to address the cleanup of contaminated offsite areas used by active uranium mines.
Last December, Congress forced the agency's hand by passing an amendment that will turn the regulatory process over to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission if EPA does not come up with a final rule by October.
The EPA, noting that Congress did not intend it to name a specific method of control, elected to propose standards that uranium mining companies must meet by whatever method they find most reasonable and economical. The standards would limit the release of radon, a radioactive gas that can cause cancer, and require engineering measures to prevent the release of other hazardous substances into water.
In general, the standards will require companies to provide graded disposal sites with earthen liners and covers. EPA said it had selected a "cost-effective" method, rather than a "least-cost" option, because of the length of time mill tailings may remain hazardous--as long as 265,000 years.