December 20, 2011

Uranium mining in Virginia update

Are the rewards worth the risks?

The long awaited report (all 290 pages) from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) about mining uranium in Virginia provides some not-so-surprising news. The bottom line is that Virginia must overcome “steep hurdles” before it can assure that mining uranium in the western part of Virginia, at the Coles Hill site, can be safely done.

The NAS report does not definitively state that extracting possibly 119 milllion pounds of uranium can be done safely in this area of Spotslvania County, but defers that to our legislators as a policy decision. THAT is scarier than the largest undeveloped deposit of the radioactive element in the U.S. itself.

Why would they lift a 30-year moratorium on mining uranium?  Because Virginia Uranium Inc. wants them to and even funded the $1.4 million study. Hmmm? That company even spnsored a trip to France earlier in the year for a lot of the lawmakers to see how it's done safely in France. Hmmm again.

There are many risks, needless to say, in mining uranium. Yes, it's on that perioidic chart of elements we may remember from high school and it occurs naturally in the earth. But we saw how BP mitigated the dangers of offshore oil well drilling with their "infallible" blowout preventers.

Before the report was released, Governor Bob McDonnell stated that public safety must trump the potential economic impact and a boost in jobs to Southside Virginia. But campaign contributions could easily sway some legislators.

Virginia also has no uranium monitoring experience, and the U.S. has little experience with modern mines. So the state would have to enact a whole new set of uranium laws for optimal regulation and oversight. The East Coast has never seen full-scale uranium mining, but it has seen hurricanes on a regular basis. At the moment, the only folks who have a real voice are adjacent landowners. But didn't Japan's nuclear disaster extend farther out than a few miles? And do we yet know the extent of radiation exposure in that disaster?
It may take between five to eight years after lifting the moratorium to commence any uranium mining. So we don't need to suffer immediate heartburn over this possibility. Although last summer's earthquake should make us wary of any down-in-the-earth substances.

One member of the uranium mining subcommittee of Virginia's Coal and Energy Commission asked if maintaining a radioactive tailings (uranium mill waste) containment site for 1,000 years, as per federal regulation, was realistic.

Uranium mining opponents, such as the Southern Environmental Law Center, found the NAS report validated their concerns about potential risks to human health and the environment, But Virginia Uranium Inc. viewed the report as a “clear road map” for moving forward.

Yes, coal-burning power plants are dirty and we need uranium for our nuclear plants, and we import more than 90 percent of our nuclear fuel. But I'd want a very muscular regulatory power in place well before the moratorium is lifted.

Let the spin doctoring begin. The long-suffering Chesapeake Bay has enough problems with the current pollutants. Can we risk more?

Click here to learn what American Rivers folks have to say about uranium mining, or click here for input from the Piedmont Environmental Council..