Uranium Mining:

Opportunities Exist to Improve Oversight of Financial Assurances

GAO-12-544: Published: May 17, 2012. Publicly Released: May 24, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, and the Department of Energy (DOE) are the key agencies that oversee uranium exploration and extraction on federal land, but GAO identified three areas where their oversight processes differ. First, these agencies have different processes for notification of uranium exploration or extraction activities on federal land. Second, the agencies require operators to have in place financial assurances to cover the full estimated cost of reclaiming a uranium operation, but they differ in who estimates the value of the financial assurance and the frequency of their reviews of the assurances. Third, under existing authorities, DOE can collect royalties or rents for uranium extraction, but BLM and the Forest Service cannot. DOE has collected about $64 million in rents and royalties from its leasing program since the 1940s.

As of January 2012, a total of 221 uranium operations were on federally managed land, but only 7 were actively extracting uranium and all of these were on BLM land. An additional 29 uranium operations were awaiting federal approval. Of the 202 operations on BLM land, the majority were engaged in either reclamation or exploration activities, according to BLM field officials. In addition, 3 uranium operations were on Forest Service land, and 16 operations were on lease tracts that DOE manages, none of which were actively extracting uranium.

As of January 2012, BLM, the Forest Service, and DOE reported having $249.1 million in financial assurances, and these assurances were generally adequate to cover the estimated reclamation costs for uranium operations on federal land. Nearly all of these assurances ($247.6 million) were for authorized uranium operations on BLM-managed land, with the remaining $1.5 million for authorized operations on Forest Service land and for DOE’s lease tracts. BLM and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is responsible for overseeing some aspects of uranium operations on federal land, do not coordinate efforts to establish and review financial assurances for in situ recovery operations, which use a series of wells to extract uranium. Such operations account for a large percentage of the total financial assurances held by the agencies.

Federal agencies do not have reliable data on the number and location of abandoned uranium mine sites on federal land or a definitive cost for their cleanup. There are likely thousands of abandoned uranium mine sites on federal land, but GAO identified significant limitations in agencies’ data that make their databases generally unreliable. For example, these databases do not have complete data and do not use a consistent definition of an abandoned mine site. Agencies do not know how many sites will need cleanup, and they do not have information on the total cost to clean up these sites. Based on agencies’ experiences with cleanup at some sites, cleanup costs could vary significantly from thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on site-specific conditions and the amount and type of work required at each site.

Why GAO Did This Study

From 2005 through 2007, uranium prices increased from about $20 a pound to over $140 a pound, leading to renewed interest in uranium mining on federal land. This interest has raised concerns about the potential impacts that more uranium operations could have on the environment. GAO was asked to (1) compare key agencies’ oversight of uranium exploration and extraction operations on federal land, (2) determine the number and status of uranium operations on federal land, (3) identify the coverage and amounts of financial assurances for reclaiming current uranium operations on federal land, and (4) examine what is known about the number and location of abandoned uranium mine sites on federal land and their potential cleanup costs. GAO reviewed agency reports and regulations, surveyed relevant agency field staff on the status of these operations, and examined federal data on uranium operations, financial assurances, and abandoned uranium mine sites.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that federal agencies better coordinate their efforts when establishing financial assurances and develop a consistent definition for abandoned mine sites. The Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Energy, along with NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), concurred with these recommendations. In addition, Interior and EPA provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Anu K.Mittal, (202) 512-3841, mittala@gao.gov

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help better ensure that financial assurances are adequate for uranium mining operations on federal land, the Secretary of the Interior and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should enhance their coordination on financial assurances for in situ recovery (ISR) operations through the development of a memorandum of understanding that defines roles and promotes information sharing.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based in part upon our work, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Bureau of Land Management signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in February 2013 to improve interagency communication and share their respective expertise with one another. One of the areas highlighted in the MOU is coordinating on financial assurances for uranium operations. Specifically, the MOU states that NRC and BLM will coordinate and share information on financial assurances and conduct periodic joint meetings involving staff or senior management.

    Recommendation: To help better ensure that financial assurances are adequate for uranium mining operations on federal land, the Secretary of the Interior and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should enhance their coordination on financial assurances for ISR operations through the development of a memorandum of understanding that defines roles and promotes information sharing.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based in part upon our work, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Bureau of Land Management signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in February 2013 to improve interagency communication and share their respective expertise with one another. One of the areas highlighted in the MOU is coordinating on financial assurances for uranium operations. Specifically, the MOU states that NRC and BLM will coordinate and share information on financial assurances and conduct periodic joint meetings involving staff or senior management.

    Recommendation: To enhance data collection efforts on abandoned mines, the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should work to develop a consistent definition of abandoned mine sites for use in data-gathering efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Through the Federal Mining Dialogue, an interagency group consisting of officials from the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency met on June 26, 2012 and November 14, 2012 to discuss and develop a consistent definition of an abandoned mine site. In January 2013, a unified federal agency definition was appproved for implementation. Subsequently, on September 20, 2013, BLM issued an instruction memo to field staff that provided the consistent definition of abandoned uranium mines and said this definition is to be used when communicating with other federal agencies on abandoned uranium mines.

    Recommendation: To enhance data collection efforts on abandoned mines, the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should work to develop a consistent definition of abandoned mine sites for use in data-gathering efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Through the Federal Mining Dialogue, an interagency group consisting of officials from the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency met on June 26, 2012 and November 14, 2012 to discuss and develop a consistent definition of an abandoned mine site. In January 2013, a unified federal agency definition was appproved for implementation. On February 4, 2014, the U.S. Forest Service issued an instruction memo to regional foresters that provided the consistent definition of abandoned uranium mines and said this definition was to be used for program management, project planning, and inventory purposes.

    Recommendation: To enhance data collection efforts on abandoned mines, the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should work to develop a consistent definition of abandoned mine sites for use in data-gathering efforts.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: No action taken as of June 2013.

    Recommendation: To help better ensure that financial assurances are adequate for uranium mining operations on federal land, and to improve oversight of financial assurances, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Bureau of Land Management to (1) include information on expired mine operations in the annual Bond Review Report process, and (2) develop guidance to ensure accurate and prompt data entry in LR2000.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based in part on our work, BLM has issued its Surface Management Handbook with updates clarifying and reiterating guidance that data be entered in LR2000 within 5 working days of an event. BLM has also incorporated expired uranium mining operations into its Bond Review Report.

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