Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Uranium Mining: The Coming Battle

Things are starting to heat up in Virginia over uranium mining. The General Assembly is likely to consider a bill early next year to allow uranium mining. I have started to get emails on the issue so I thought I'd let everyone know where I stand.

To most people, this issue seems to have come out of the blue, but it has actually been around a while. In the 1970's, large deposits of uranium were found in Virginia along the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Companies purchased mining or exploration leases in several places, including several in Fauquier County and Prince William County at the head of the Occoquan River.

The largest deposit in the United States is believed to be located in Pittsylvania County in the southern part of our state and currently the mining companies are focused on that area.
View Larger Map

In 1982, the General Assembly of Virginia enacted a statewide ban on uranium mining, in part because of the 1979 nuclear plant accident in Pennsylvania, known as Three Mile Island turned public opinion against anything uranium.

With energy prices rising and pressure to transition away from coal and oil, some people are starting to look at expanding nuclear power again. In 2008, the General Assembly rejected a bill to authorize a study to examine the safety of uranium mining in Virginia. There are currently four separate studies underway, including one by the National Academy of Sciences.We expect them to be completed by the end of this year.

One reason the issue has become more visible recently is that Virginia Uranium, the company proposing to mine uranium in Pittsylvania County, offered to fly most state legislators to France to tour uranium mines. They maintain that visiting would be helpful because France it has similar climate to Virginia. It is my understanding that uranium has mostly been mined in dry climates like the arid Southwest U.S. and opponents of uranium mining say that Virginia’s wet climate and storm potential pose unacceptable risks for uranium mining. About 15-20 people (out of 140) have taken the trip. I did not go for a variety of reasons (that is an entirely different discussion).

Many of the communities near the proposed Pittsylvania mining site are very focused on this issue. So is Virginia Beach because they get their drinking water from Lake Gaston. Many others are starting to pay attention.
At this time, we do not know what the four studies will conclude. In theory, I assume almost anything can be done safely within certain assumptions and with enough money. The problem is that the assumptions are frequently wrong. Humans have frequently proven to be very capable of under-estimating risk until after the facts. Just consider the impact of the recent Pacific tsunami on Japan’s nuclear plants, 9-11, or flooding along the Mississippi or Hunting Creek nearby.

One key issue is the safety of storing the mining waste, waste that can get into drinking water and containing elements that have been linked to serious diseases. A critical question for me is what kind of storage is planned, whether than storage is feasible and whether it is safe. Some say the waste must be contained for one thousand years. Uranium itself is radioactive and highly toxic to human and environmental health.

Here’s a good example of an unanticipated natural disaster in Virginia. In 1969, Hurricane Camile came up the East Coast and then “parked” on top of Virginia for two days. It dumped 27 inches of rain on ruralNelson County in central Virginia in three hours. 153 people were killed and 133 bridges were washed out. It wreaked horrendous devastation throughout Nelson County, destroying homes, farms, buildings and lives. Nelson County is also right along the U.S. 29 corridor right at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A weather event like that on top of or near a uranium mine,would be truly frightening. Can any waste storage system or mining operation withstand that kind of powerful storm?

I've posted a map of old Northern Virginia uranium lease sites (places where companies received leases to mine, leases that have now expired) to the right (click on it to enlarge). You will see that several sites are near the Occoquan River which feeds the Occoquan Resevoir, the major drinking water source for most of Fairfax County. Mining a material that could permanently destroy the Occoquan River and impair the drinking water for millions is a non-starter for me. It is unacceptable to me to subject anyone else to that kind of risk.

Where do I stand right now? In fairness, I would like to see the various studies to be completed this year, but based on what I know so far, I am skeptical of lifting the ban. I've told that to the Virginia Uranium people. If I had to vote today, I would vote no.

However, I do owe the proponents and the opponents an opportunity to make their case. I have little to no experience with mining. I'm learning as much as I can right now to make an educated decision. I hope you will share your views with me by posting up comments here or emailing me at scottsurovell@gmail.com.


  1. Delegate Surovell-
    The valid comparison for the risks involved would be to coal mining, which is prevalent throughout our commonwealth and neighboring states, and has no shortage of hazards to both the workers and the general public - and that's on top of the routine and accepted practice of putting CO2 (and radioactivity for that matter) in the atmosphere every single day.

  2. Ken - I don't view coal mining as being comparable because an event involving the release of coal mining waste would dissipate from the environment in a meaningful period of a time.

    The escape of uranium tainted mining waste would potentially and effectively permanently pollute Virginia Beach's drinking source in perpetuity given the half-life of uranium.

    That's why controlling the mining wastes is a key issue.

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