Monday, December 19, 2011

NAS Study Highlights Risks of Mining Uranium

Six months ago, I wrote about the coming fight this session over the lifting Virginia's thirty-year moratorium on mining uranium.  You can read my article here:

This week, the National Academy of Sciences released its long-awaited report regarding this issue.  The New York Times has a good summary here

The full report has a fascinating section on Virginia's geology, weather, and ecology.  For example, it points out that debris flows are some of the most destructive events in the Virginia's mountainous areas, account for more than 50% of erosion in Virginia mountainous area river basins, and recur on a 2,000-4,000 year cycle.  (P. 30-31)  Virginia is at a relatively high risk for flooding because we have a high precipitation rate and topography - much higher than areas where uranium has ever been mined before in the United States (P. 34). 

It also points out that our experience with earthquakes only started in the 1700's and we just experienced the most serious earthquake event of the last 400 years just a few months ago that shut down the North Anna reactor for months.  (P. 30-31). 

The report also included this great map that shows how all this got started.  Basically, in 1973, the U.S. Government decided to promote uranium exploration in response to the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo.  The conducted an airborne gamma-ray spectrometry survey to identify surface concentrations of radioactive minerals by measuring gamma ray emissions.  The map is on the right and the site we are fighting about is right in the middle of the massive purple blob in Central Southside Virginia (see note I added to Figure 3.4 at right (click to enlarge)). 

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Click to enlarge Figure 3.4 and note that on this map, the 44th District, Alexandria and Arlington have practically no gamma-radiation (explaining George Washington's emergence as our nation's leader and making the 44th District one of the few locations in Virginia whose thoughts aren't regularly clouded by radioactive emissions (note tongue in cheek)).

The price of uranium has varied widely.  This chart on the left show historical uranium prices. 

You can see the spike in 1973 and then in 2006 when this issue picked up interest in Virginia again. 

About 20% of the current U.S. uranium supply comes from decommissioned Soviet warheads.  That supply is coming to an end shortly.  Between that and demand from new reactors (yes, I know Germany is going in a different direction), the long-term price prospects for uranium must be good. 
That's what I read in the first 100 pages. 
I'll read the last 120 pages tomorrow, but here are some highlights I pulled from the Non-Technical Summary.
  • Page 11.  There are 55 documented occurrences of uranium deposits in Virginia.  Most are along the Blue Ridge and Piedmont (right).  Thus far, only one has been identified as economically viable to mine. 
  • Page 12.  Open pit and conventional mining (tunneling) are the only viable methods of mining uranium in Virginia. 
  • Page 13.  The NAS did not have enough site-specific data to predict what mining or processing method would be appopriate for the Coles Hill site in Virginia.
  • Page 14.  Use of industry best practices and a robust regulatory framework are necessary to mitigate the risk of radiation exposure to the general public from groundwater contamination or airborne radiation (radioactive dust or radon gas). 
  • Page 15.  Modern tailings management attempts to control tailings for 200-1000 years.  VA is subject to "relatively frequent storms that produce intense rainfall" and "it is questionable whether currently-engineered tailings repositories could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years." 
  • Page 16 - Existing uranium mining regulations were typically enacted in reaction to bad events.  Going forward, "A culture is required in which worker and public health, environmental resources, and ecological resources are highly valued, continuously assessed, and actively protected." 
  • Page 17 - Virginia has not needed to regulate uranium mining in the past.  "At present, there are substantial gaps in legal and regulatory coverage for activities involved in uranium mining, processing, reclamation, and long-term stewardship." 
  • Page 17 - Public participation is critical in the regulatory process before decisions are made.  "[U]nder the current regulatory structure, opportunities for meaningful public involvement are fragmented and limited."  Opportunities for public participation in licensing of specific mines is limited only to adjacent landowners.  There is no guaranty that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold approval hearings in the vicinity of the proposed facility.  "Furthermore, there is no evidence at present that members of the public would be included in deliberations about post-closure plans at the time those plans are implemented."
Finally, there is this quote in summary on Page 19 (my emphasis added):

If the Commonwealth of Virginia removes the moratorium on uranium mining, there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and processing could be established in a way 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 in the United States, and no such experience in Virginia. At the same time, there exist internationally accepted best practices that could provide a starting point for the Commonwealth if it decides to lift its moratorium. After extensive scientific and technical briefings, substantial public input, the review of numerous documents and extensive deliberations, the committee is convinced that the adoption and rigorous implementation of such practices would be necessary if uranium mining, processing, and reclamation were to be undertaken.
The summary of the report raises many serious questions and points to many flaws in Virginia's existing regulatory framework that need to be explored before proceeding.   It also suggests that a "hands off" approach is not the best way to proceed when dealing with a substance as toxic as uranium and that implemention should involve a lot more than the simple repeal of a moratorium if we are to proceed while protecting the public. 

I might write more after I read the rest, but in the meantime, I'm curious to see what the proposal is to overcome the "steep hurdles" identified in the report.  It seems to me like this will require much more than just a repeal of a moratorium.

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