By Bill Bartel
© December 20, 2011
A long-awaited $1.4 million study of uranium mining in Virginia suggests there are economic benefits to harvesting the underground radioactive material in Pittsylvania County but also huge environmental and health risks that have to be overcome or substantially reduced.
The study by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences made public Monday does not take sides in the debate over whether to allow uranium mining – instead, it’s aimed at giving policymakers and the public an unbiased, accurate look at the issues involved.
The report notes that the state has “essentially no experience in regulating uranium mining.” Before opening the door to uranium mining and processing, it says, the state would need a new system of rigorous, transparent procedures for mining operations, environmental protection and proper monitoring of radioactive mining waste for many generations to come. Setting up such a system could take at least four years and actual uranium mining, if approved, likely wouldn’t begin for five to eight years after a license is granted.
The 302-page study is expected to be a critical tool in the debate over whether to lift a 30-year ban on uranium mining in the state. Virginia Uranium wants the moratorium lifted to begin extracting and processing uranium buried under Coles Hill, a farm outside the town of Chatham in Pittsylvania County.
Proponents say the site, considered one of the largest uranium deposits in the world, could be the center of an economic boom for the state and supply needed nuclear fuel for the country.
Critics contend that allowing the mining operation would pose an unacceptable risk of radioactive contamination to people and the environment, including the nearby river system that feeds Lake Gaston – a major source of water for Hampton Roads. Virginia Beach officials have expressed particular concern about that possibility.
The panel deliberately did not say whether it believes that uranium mining can be done without harming public health or the environment. The report requirements did not allow it to make that determination, said Paul Locke, an environmental health scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who led the 14-member study group. “We tried to lay out all of the things they need to think about.”
Locke, as well as activists on both sides of the issue, acknowledged Monday that any uranium extraction can carry some risks to people and the environment. The debate is over whether such risk can be sufficiently minimized to allow for the mining.
“Best practices exist that if applied should mitigate some of the risk to the public and risk to workers,” Locke said.
Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms doesn’t accept that argument.
“There’s still risk involved,” Sessoms said. “Do we want to take any risk at all jeopardizing the water supply?”
The 14-member study group – all volunteers – wrote that if the state decides to rescind the moratorium, “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and/or processing could be established within a regulatory environment that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment.
“There is only limited experience with modern underground and open pit uranium mining and processing practices in the wider United States, and no such experience in Virginia. At the same time, there exist internationally accepted best practices, founded on principles of openness, transparency, and public involvement in oversight and decision-making, that could provide a starting point for the commonwealth of Virginia were it to decide that the moratorium should be lifted.”
The panel found 55 locations in Virginia where researchers believe uranium deposits exist, but Coles Hill is so far the only known economically viable site for mining, Locke said.
Virginia’s wet climate and vulnerability to earthquakes present challenges to designing a mining and uranium milling operation that would minimize public health and environmental risk, the report states.
Not all risks can be removed but there are “best practices” that can be adopted to minimize them, it states.
However, there also are unknowns.
For example, the radioactive mining tailings – the leftovers from processing uranium into yellow cake – would have to be properly stored for thousands of years, Locke said. At present there is only data available on the first 20 years of such storage.
Key players on both sides of the debate praised the study but for different reasons.
Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, said his firm has no problem with the need for strict regulations and controls. He said the company officials expected it will take several years before they could begin mining.
“Virginia Uranium believes this study provides a clear road map for operating the world’s safest uranium mine in Virginia,” Wales said.
Cale Jaffe, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes lifting the moratorium, said the study points out dramatic risks to people and the environment. He said state legislators need to follow through with plans to allow several months for the public to read and comment on the study before the General Assembly considers any legislation to repeal the ban on uranium mining and write new regulations.
“You don’t develop regulations before you’ve made the public policy decision on whether this industry can be safely regulated at all,” he said.
State Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, a subcommittee member, said he expects legislation to repeal the moratorium will be introduced in the 2012 General Assembly session but might not pass until the following year. The moratorium could be abolished in the same bill that also calls for new regulations overseeing the mining, he said.
The uranium study was endorsed by all members of the study panel, according to the Research Council. However, one member, Corby Anderson of the Colorado School of Mines, said he was pressured by National Research Council staff to quickly review and approve the final document in 24 hours so that it could be issued this week.
“This came out in final form and we had no time to approve it,” said Anderson, who added that he wanted to spend more time reviewing a section dealing the possible health effects on humans uranium mining and process.
It was not “an A-plus report,” he said, but he eventually agreed to sign it.
Anderson’s concern was made public during the subcommittee hearing by state Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico County, who was sent a copy of an email that Anderson wrote to someone else.
Jennifer Walsh, spokeswoman for the National Academy of Sciences, said Anderson’s complaint is being investigated but stressed that he is not objecting to the final report. Any complaint about substance would have to be noted the document, she said.
Staff writer Julian Walker contributed to this report.
Bill Bartel, (757) 446-2398, firstname.lastname@example.org