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A billion-dollar market in the remediation of abandoned uranium mines is about to open up in the Navajo Nation, thanks to an historic settlement by the U.S. Department of Justice in its case against oil and gas giant Kerr-McGee Corp.

The settlement, reached in 2014 with Kerr-McGee’s parent company, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., affects 49 of Kerr-McGee’s Cold War-era mines dotting Navajo lands, which straddle the borders of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona (see Figure 1). With the funding in place, a series of RFPs will be issued on a rolling basis and across a range of jobs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Poised to bring shape and substance to the unprecedented cleanup is Cardno Inc., a global infrastructure and environmental services firm with a patent-pending process tailor-made for the difficult task of assessing an impaired site.

In April, Cardno Inc. filed a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for use in the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) industry. The patent application is directed to several inventions including a remote sensing workflow process using drones and specialized sensors to assess contamination at abandoned uranium mines.

The system, essentially a one-stop shop that entails surveying, high-resolution photography, LiDAR, and gamma sensing — all administered from a military-grade drone — would safely allow for unprecedented evaluation of not only the size and scope of a contaminated area, but also removal and disposal of the waste.

“Our patent application covers the concept and the work flow,” said Jason Kack, West Business Unit manager of Cardno’s Geospatial Services Area. “Our patent application includes claims on the process itself. This is more than merely a device patent.”

While the 49-mine cleanup is enormous, it is only a fraction of the total market in the remediation of uranium mines. According to the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management, there are about 15,000 such mines in the United States, with most of them clustered in 14 Western states. To remediate all of them would cost multi-billions, and the process of stabilizing the sites could last as long as a century.

The mines are strewn across a mix of lands owned by the U.S. government, Tribal groups, and the private sector. With its patent-pending workflow process, Cardno would be in a position to contract with all of them as the remediation unfolds. And on top of that, the firm could add clarity to the price tag associated with a particular cleanup, an established problem in the field.

Figure 1: Intense uranium mining took place on the lands of the Navajo Nation. As many as 49 of those abandoned mines are scheduled for remediation due to a $1 billion settlement by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We can obtain a better understanding regarding the extent of the contamination,” Kack said. “Producing better data allows for better remediation planning.”

The heyday for domestic uranium mining began in 1948, when the Atomic Energy Council announced it would purchase all uranium ore mined in the U.S. According to the EPA, a lot of that mining — as much as 4 million tons worth from 1944 to 1986 — took place on the lands of the Navajo Nation.

Uranium is a very heavy metal that can be used as a source of concentrated energy, and, according to the World Nuclear Association, was formed in supernovas about 6.6 billion years ago. Uranium, which provides the main source of heat inside the earth, is 18.7 times as dense as water. While uranium has many uses, it is best known as the principal fuel for nuclear reactors, and as the raw material for nuclear weapons.

The world’s largest producers of mined uranium are Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia, which collectively account for two-thirds of the global supply, according to the World Nuclear Association. The United States is the world’s largest consumer of uranium, but is expected to be overtaken by China at some point in the near future.

The competitive market in drone technology is undergoing explosive growth. Business Insider says drones will consolidate around agriculture, energy, utilities, mining, construction, real estate, media, and film. Business Insider also says that on the commercial/civilian side, the drone market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent between 2015 and 2020.

Jason Kack is West Business Unit manager of Cardno’s Geospatial Services Area.

Cardno not only uses drones, but also has a significant presence in the drone industry. The firm has FAA 333 exemptions allowing it to legally fly more than 1,150 different drone platforms nationwide from ground level to an altitude of 400 feet in unrestricted airspace. Cardno maintains a fleet of drones and sensors, and has a professional team of pilots.

Its workflow process for uranium mines is but the latest service in its comprehensive drone package. And the firm plans to continue seeking exclusivity over what intellectual property it has developed.

“If you get an issued patent, you can eliminate much of the competition by controlling the patent,” Kack said. “We seek to establish a first mover position for advanced sensor applications within the UAS industry.”

As a 6,500-person global firm, Cardno is well aware of the global potential of its workflow process. There are abandoned uranium mines across the world. But in a global context, several considerations come into play. Can an issued patent be protected? Does the country have a real problem with abandoned uranium mines? And are there resources for projects?

“There are countries that have the resources and commitment to complete remediation and others that are not there yet,” Kack said. “Initially our focus will be on the countries that have active programs and resources to conduct projects.”

Richard Massey is managing editor for The Zweig Letter. He can be reached at rmassey@zweiggroup.com. This article is reprinted from the June 13, 2016 issue of The Zweig Letter, a weekly management publication crafted specifically to help design professionals run an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm. Get more information and subscribe at https://thezweigletter.com/.php.

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