Cotter: Waste not
The Daily Record News Group
CITY -- Prior to 2001, the Cotter Corp.'s logo was a golden nucleus
surrounded by the circular paths of orbiting electrons, a reflection
of the company's long history of milling uranium at a sprawling
complex just south of Cañon City.
But sometime last year, management decided that nuclear was passé
and that a change was in order.
The new logo is now a forest-green nucleus surrounded by three thick
arrows forming a triangle.
The international symbol for recycling.
Company officials insist that the change is merely superficial and
that Cotter's future remains in processing uranium and perhaps zirconium
from natural ore.
agenda is not to become a disposal facility or an alternate feed
facility," said Rich Ziegler, Cotter's executive vice president
and a 30-year employee of the company. "Our business plan involves
But a number of factors suggest that Cotter's letterhead transformation
is part of something much deeper.
For starters, as company officials have acknowledged, processing
uranium from ore in the United States hasn't been a viable business
activity since the early- to mid-1980s and the industry's future
is just as gloomy.
mining and milling production from U.S. uranium deposits is unlikely
for a decade or more," James J. Graham, the chairman of Cotter's
board of directors, said in a March 2002 trade-journal article he
authored on the state of the nuclear power industry.
Graham concluded the article in Mining Engineering by unabashedly
soliciting Cotter's services to any comers.
is exploring new technologies to recover uranium from nontraditional
sources. The company is investigating nontraditional methods of
recovering uranium from Colorado's Western Slope uranium-vanadium
deposits," he wrote. "And Cotter is always on the lookout
for uranium production opportunities."
The most promising opportunity, according to company officials,
is the development of a new process to extract zirconium.
were hoping that it could be 80 percent to 90 percent of our business,"
said Cotter President Richard Cherry, who is currently negotiating
to acquire rights to the process from CMS Energy, the company that
spearheaded the project but abandoned it earlier this summer.
According to Cherry, that is why state approval for the mill to
accept 470,000 tons of contaminated soil from a Maywood, N.J., Superfund
site is so critical. Without the dirt, Cotter does not have the
capital to proceed with the zirconium project, he said.
But at least some of Cotter's business has already come from the
mill's new ownership.
In February 2000, Commonwealth Edison, Cotter's corporate parent
since 1975, sold the company and the mill to General Atomics, a
La Jolla, Calif.-based company with a legacy in the design and construction
of nuclear reactors and in the fabrication of nuclear fuel.
At the time of the sale, nuclear industry insiders speculated that
General Atomics wanted the Cañon City property "to begin
competing for processing the sizable quantities of so-called 'alternate
feed material' that are becoming available from the cleanup of various
government sites around the country."
it is a good fit for us," Graham, then the senior vice president
for nuclear fuels at General Atomics, was quoted as saying in the
February 2000 issue of the trade journal NuclearFuel.
Indeed it was.
At the same time General Atomics was completing the Cotter deal,
it was also negotiating with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over
plan specifics for the clean-up of a uranium processing facility
it owned in Gore, Okla. The Sequoyah Fuels Corp. plant -- which
processed uranium oxide, or yellowcake, from mills such as Cotter
into uranium hexafluoride for conversion into nuclear fuel -- was
shut down in November 1992 after a series of environmental and safety
violations, including a toxic explosion that killed one worker.
Cherry called the timing of the deal.
Atomics primary interest in Cotter was that it was a viable mineral
processing mill," said Cherry, who worked as the marketing
manager for General Atomics subsidiary Nuclear Fuels Corp. before
taking over the helm of Cotter. "The very first thing we did
was to move off into zirconium processing."
However, less than a year after General Atomics bought Cotter, the
Cañon City mill received its first shipment of waste from
According to materials acceptance reports filed with the Colorado
Department of Public Health and Environment, three shipments of
uranium concentrates and sludge arrived between Jan. 12 and Jan.
One shipment consisted of three tankers, each loaded with 32,510
pounds of liquid waste, half of which was uranium. The second had
five drums weighing a combined 2,800 pounds of mainly uranium waste,
but which also included arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, mercury,
selenium and lead.
Both these loads were mixed into thickening tanks at the mill to
be processed for their uranium.
The final shipment brought 5,000 pounds of soil sludge tainted with
uranium, thorium, radium and ammonia to Cotter.
Jake Jacobi, the head of the state health department's Radiation
Services Program, said after Cotter submitted a lab analysis of
the load for a safety evaluation, his office determined that it
did not fall within Cotter's permit, and the company had to refuse
And as a result of recent NRC rulings, even more material from Sequoyah
is also now eligible for disposal
In January 2001, Sequoyah Fuels applied to the NRC to have 185,000
cubic meters of radioactive soil -- 77 percent of the clean-up at
the facility -- classified as 11e(2) waste, the exact same type
of uranium byproduct that Cotter is authorized to process and dispose
of. Sequoyah petitioned the NRC in 1993 for the same change in classification
and was denied.
In their recommendations to approve the proposal - which was ultimately
approved -- NRC staff said although the plan called for on-site
disposal in Oklahoma, reclassifying the waste as 11e(2) "could
also lead to other remediation options."
tailings could be directly disposed in an off-site mill tailings
impoundment at an existing uranium mill," without having to
obtain approval from the Department of Energy or from states with
low-level waste compacts, NRC staff said.
In fact, the NRC went even further.
Under federal regulations, when uranium-processing facilities such
as Sequoyah are decommissioned, they are turned over to the Department
of Energy. But DOE will accept them only if the entire site is under
If a site contains waste that is out of the agency's purview, such
as hazardous chemicals regulated by the EPA, it could jeopardize
Because approximately 23 percent of the waste at Sequoyah fits that
definition, DOE could be reluctant to take over the site, meaning
the other 77 percent of the cleanup could be shipped elsewhere.
(Sequoyah Fuels) has not proposed any of these alternatives, but
would have the flexibility to choose them..." the NRC recommendation
said. "This flexibility may be needed if DOE is unable or unwilling
to accept non-11e(2) byproduct material left on site."
According to Ziegler, if it came to that, shipping the EPA-regulated
material would be the least economical option for solving the problem.
DOE didn't want any non-11e(2) material, it would not be cost-effective
to dig up the 11e(2) material and move it. That would cost millions
of dollars," he said. "It would be much cheaper to move
the non-compliant material off-site and keep the 11e(2) on site."
Sequoyah aside, there is clearly enough glittering in the waste
end of the uranium business to catch the eye of struggling mills
such as Cotter.
Cotter recognized as much in its license renewal application, which
was submitted to the state health department in December 2000.
The document includes a potential five-year production schedule,
which includes projects to extract 12.2 million pounds of uranium
from 275,075 tons of material, 45 percent of which would come from
tailings, slag and nuclear fuel production byproducts. Projections
also included another 500,000 tons of material, such as the contaminated
Maywood soil, that would qualify for direct disposal in the mill's
In fact, Cotter managers recognized at the time that the Army Corps
of Engineers program cleaning up the Maywood site had the potential
to provide the mill with 60 percent of that waste material.
Ziegler said owners of tailings piles from around the country often
call looking for a place to dispose of their waste, but that it's
not fiscally smart to fill up the mill's impoundments with material
that lacks substantial mineral value.
tell them, 'We're not in the business of disposal, but if you've
got something with uranium in it, we'll consider it,' " he
said. "We don't see it making sense to get into the alternate
But there's also no denying that there's virtual gold to be had
by accepting others' contamination.
Before the state health department suspended all radioactive shipments
into Cotter in
the agency approved a request by the mill to accept 35,000 tons
of waste from a contaminated site on Long Island.
The so-called Li Tungsten material, which Cotter would have processed
to recover small amounts of uranium before disposing of the tailings,
"was just a very good business opportunity," said Ziegler.