Uranium Mining – A risky proposition for Virginia

by Bryanna Altman

The Virginia General Assembly is expected to vote  this  year (2012) on whether to lift a 30-year moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia.  Nuclear power is generated using uranium, a metal mined in various parts of the world. Nuclear power produces huge amounts of energy from small amounts of fuel, without the pollution you’d get from burning fossil fuels.

The United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity.  In 2010 the country’s 104 nuclear reactors produced over 20% of total electrical output.  It is expected that 4-6 new nuclear reactors may come on line by 2020.

A company called Virginia Uranium, Inc. wants to mine a deposit known as Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, the only economically viable source identified in Virginia (National Academy of Sciences report). Virginia Uranium says tests indicate there are about 119 million pounds of uranium, worth as much as $10 billion, below the surface.  It is the world’s seventh-largest known deposit, or enough to supply all U.S. nuclear power plants for about two years or Virginia’s demands for 75 years.  

Virginia Uranium, Inc. executives also stated the company is owned by locals who care about their community and would never risk polluting it. But behind Virginia Uranium Inc. are two Canadian corporations, Virginia Energy Resources and Sprott, which hold a 49.8% interest in Virginia Uranium, Inc.  

Virginia Uranium, Inc. has been aggressively lobbying lawmakers. The company has spoken to over 100 of the 140 legislators and flew more than a dozen of them to France and Canada to visit uranium mines.  It has donated more than $150,000 to candidates in Virginia and retained five of Richmond’s most influential lobbying and public relations firms, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.

Governor McDonnell has stated uranium mining would bring a boost in jobs and aid the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. “But of course you can’t do it if you’re going to sacrifice public safety — whether it’s groundwater contamination or potential exposure in the neighboring areas,” the governor was quoted as saying on a call-in show on WNIS Radio in Norfolk.

The Fairfax County Water Authority shares the Governor’s concerns and invested $85,000 to learn more about the impact of uranium mining on its watershed.  Their Board hired two Fairfax County firms to do a study on the impact of uranium mining in the Occoquan River, available online here.

The study recommended a “conservative and precautionary approach,” based on their findings that uranium mining and milling activities initiated in the Potomac and/or Occoquan watersheds have the potential to increase the risk of negative impacts to Fairfax Water’s source water quality and water supply reliability.

Many are concerned about the milling of uranium because the mill creates many thousands of tons of radioactive ore residue and fear it will get into the drinking waters supply, which could lead to harmful impacts to people and aquatic life.

Mining, processing and waste disposal could leave a toxic, radioactive legacy in the watershed for centuries and the potential health impacts are well documented and include several types of cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption and organ damage.

Last year the United States imported 92% of the uranium needed to fuel the country’s 104 nuclear reactors. Canada was the world’s largest uranium producer, accounting for about 22% of world output.  Canadian production is expected to increase significantly in 2013 when a new mine comes into operation.  With known uranium resources, as well as continuing exploration, Canada will have a significant role in meeting future world demand.  

While there is adequate justification about the need for uranium, the looming concern remains as to whether the extraction process can be done safely and without endangering human, plant, bird, fish and aquatic life.

As a business owner and entrepreneur I get very excited about the opportunities uranium mining could bring to the Commonwealth.  There is no doubt in my mind it could attract businesses, create jobs, and place Virginia on the map as a national leader in energy independence.  

As an Information Technology professional I know many companies consider the cost of energy when seeking a place to do business. A manager at Micron once told me the low cost of energy was a key consideration for them making the move to Prince William, Virginia.

Then there are the issues that result from America’s reliance on the importing of foreign oil.  The sooner we can wean ourselves from being dependent on other nations for our energy consumption the better off we will be as a nation.  Off the record, I spoke to a local resident and trusted expert in the field of global nuclear energy.  He wonders why the ban wasn’t lifted years ago.

Although I recognize Canada has been extracting uranium for years there are climate differences that can adversely affect the outcome in Virginia. Until I am entirely convinced the extraction process can be done safely I will remain open minded but am not ready to buy-in on lifting the ban during this year’s General Assembly Session.

As enticing as it may be to lift the ban on uranium mining there are still so many risks associated with the extraction process. As soon as uranium ore is exposed to oxygen it becomes radioactive.  That fact alone demonstrates that the risk outweighs the benefits.   Placing any form of life at risk for a non-renewal energy source is unnecessary.

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3 comments so far

  1. Around Town | PotomacLocal.com on

    […] to vote this year (2012) on whether to lift a 30-year moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia, blogs Your Piece of the Planet.  Be Sociable, Share! TweetRelated […]

  2. […] to the story: Local blog Your Piece of the Planet penned an opinion on what uranium mining would mean for the […]

  3. Harry Glasgow on

    Governor McDonnel has created a multi-agency study group to research the question of lifting the uranium ban. The work of this group is outlined in this website:

    http://www.uwg.vi.virginia.gov/

    I am generally skeptical about “transparency” claims in Virginia goveernment, but this effort may prove me wrong.


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