Uranium Mining: Rewards Do Not Outweigh the Risks
Whenever someone opens a discussion about uranium mining and milling in Virginia with, “trust me – we’ll get it right once the regulations are in place”, it should surprise no one that principled and thoughtful Virginians would seek a more thorough discussion of whether mining and milling should even be allowed in the first place. Such a discussion is now occurring all over the Commonwealth of Virginia, and in the General Assembly, where legislation is being considered which would have the effect of removing the ban on uranium mining in Virginia.
That discussion has been loud and noisy, but as the facts and concerns about uranium mining receive a fair and public hearing, it is becoming obvious that the unknown risks of uranium mining and milling far outweigh any unknown potential rewards.
The roadmap for legislative action is now quite clear.
The General Assembly must maintain the ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia.
Reasonable people will reach the same conclusion for a variety of reasons, but in the brief space allowed here, the focus will be on three primary issues.
Location, location, location
It is an inconvenient truth for mining proponents that the only active uranium mining and milling operations in the United States and Canada are located in desolate and isolated areas far away from human populations and other economic activities including farming. For example, Northern Saskatchewan, Canada is often cited as an example of a successful uranium mining region, but the nearest town of any size is 400 miles away.
Fortunately, no one actually lives very close to the mine in Canada. Should there be some kind of accident at a uranium mine in Northern Canada, and in fact accidents HAVE occurred at mines in that region, there is a good chance the incident could be contained before it becomes a public health and economic threat to humans.
Contrast that with the proposed project in Pittsylvania County. Over 100,000 people live within a 25 mile radius of the proposed site.
An accident at the proposed site in Virginia, even a relatively minor incident, would have a significant and immediate impact on the surrounding community. According to Chmura Economics and Analytics, one incident where radioactive materials were released into the environment above federally permitted levels could cause an economic loss $357 million over a five year period.
There are two other significant differences between Pittsylvania County and other regions in the US and Canada where mining operations exist. Virginia receives almost (4) times as much rainfall annually as do more arid areas where uranium is typically mined, and the water table is much closer to the surface at the Virginia site than is typical of mines in the Western US and Canada. These factors alone make uranium mining and milling in Virginia problematic.
Why? Because there are numerous documented incidents of radioactive material above permitted levels being released into the environment at uranium mining operations. Release of these dangerous materials have directly – and negatively – impacted water quality in the proximity of the mining operation. With the water table so close to the surface in Pittsylvania County and with frequent heavy rains in the region, residents in the County and downstream of the mine site are at risk on the occasion of a major rainfall event. It rains in Pittsylvania County. Sometimes a lot. And when storms like Hurricane Fran come through, it REALLY rains a lot. That is a recipe for disaster.
Moreover, Virginians cannot absolutely count on uranium mining and milling regulations, a point that has repeatedly been made by uranium mining proponents, to protect them either. Recently in Finland, increased rainfall at a uranium milling site caused a waste water pond to leak radioactive, contaminated water into the ground water supporting 250 acres of marshland, streams, lakes and ponds. Finland has a very rigorous regulatory scheme for uranium mining and milling, yet a major environmental incident occurred.
This isn’t ancient history. The incident occurred in November, 2012.
Energy Independence and uranium is a clever myth
When proponents of uranium mining and milling in Virginia talk about energy independence, one is almost tempted to put on a Benjamin Franklin suit and run outside and hold a piece of uranium ore up to the sky and look for lightning. It is simply a political myth that uranium mining in Virginia has ANYTHING to do with energy independence.
Uranium, like all other commodities, is sold on a global market.
Any potential market for Virginia uranium is not in Virginia, or even in the United States, for that matter. Uranium, like all other commodities, is sold on a global market and processed uranium will be sold to the highest bidder, regardless of whether that bidder is located in China, Japan, India or the United States. Nuclear energy producers will purchase uranium at the most attractive price, not because it is produced in a particular location.
Nuclear facilities in the United States are fueled by uranium mined from the American west, and largely from two of the US’s best and most reliable trading partners and strategic allies – Canada and Australia. Neither of those countries are a great threat to US security. The very suggestion that somehow uranium mining in Pittsylvania County will add to America’s energy independence is a cynical and clever political ploy that has no basis in fact whatsoever.
Residents in the Region just don’t want it
Finally, and perhaps most telling, residents in the area of the proposed mine site who stand to gain the most from a uranium mining operation don’t want it in their region. And it’s not really even a close call.
This isn’t just idle speculation or anecdotal data, either. Virginia Commonwealth University’s prestigious Survey Evaluation and Research Laboratory conducted a poll of residents in the Danville/Pittsylvania County area and determined, by a wide margin – 53%-29% - that area residents support keeping the ban on uranium mining in place.
The Danville-Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce recently passed a resolution of support for maintaining the ban.
The Danville City Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of keeping the ban on uranium mining and milling in place.
The Region’s legislative delegation and Lt. Governor Bolling all support keeping the ban in tact.
In fact, other jurisdictions in Virginia – including almost every county, city and town from Danville to Virginia Beach – have expressed grave concerns about uranium mining in Pittsylvania and have each passed their own resolution in support of maintaining the ban. Other than those who stand to directly benefit from the uranium mine itself, it is difficult to identify Virginians who think we should proceed with such an uncertain and risky enterprise.
The National Academy of Sciences, in its landmark report, acknowledged that there were “steep hurdles” which must be crossed before uranium could be safely mined and milled in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Despite the best efforts of many well intentioned advocates, it has not been proven that uranium mining is safe in the region and climate that all of us in Virginia call home. The unknown risks of uranium mining are just too great to compensate for unknown, anticipated rewards.
Sometimes, the best public policy determinations are the ones which default to the common sense position. In the case of uranium mining and milling in Virginia, the common sense policy position is clear.
The long standing ban on uranium mining and milling should remain in force.
ay Poole the spokesman for The Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia, a pro-business, pro-economic development coalition of Southern Virginia business, schools, farmers and citizens who believe that uranium mining and milling should not be allowed in Virginia until it has been proven safe. He is a former Senior Executive with Altria Group,Inc, specializing in communications, government relations and constituency development. Poole has also worked closely with Virginia Tech and President Steger as the University and its many constituents managed through the aftermath of the 2007 campus shootings. He is currently a Principal at Hirschler-Fliesher Consulting in Richmond.