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Report: Virginia faces obstacles with uranium mining

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Print this page Jessica Sabbath

Virginia faces “steep hurdles” if it chooses to lift a moratorium on uranium mining, according to a report released today by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

“If the Commonwealth of Virginia rescinds the existing moratorium on uranium mining, 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,” the report concluded.

The 18-month study, conducted by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), identified key concerns over public health and the environment associated with uranium mining such as radon exposure and groundwater contamination but included recommendations on how Virginia could mitigate these risks.

The report concluded that uranium mining in Virginia would require: adoption and stringent regulation of international best practices for uranium mining, detailed scientific and technical studies, and a lengthy public input and review process.

The study was commissioned by Virginia’s Coal and Energy Commission after Virginia Uranium Inc. showed interest in mining two uranium deposits, known as the Coles Hill deposits, in Pittsylvania County worth an estimated $7 billion. Virginia has had a moratorium in uranium mining for almost 30 years.

The National Academy of Sciences report did not provide a recommendation on whether Virginia should allow uranium mining or provide site–specific data on the Coles Hill deposits. Virginia has 55 areas known with high concentrations of uranium, but only the Coles Hill sites are known to be economically viable at today’s uranium prices.

One of the key obstacles Virginia would face is the state and federal lack of experience in regulating uranium mines, according to the study.

“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,” the report says.

The committee also recommended that the state consider the entire lifecycle of a mine or mill upfront, including engineering and design, startup, operations, reclamation and post-mining monitoring of uranium tailings.

Containment of uranium tailings, the solids which are produced from uranium mining, is one of the most significant concerns when covering environmental health, according to the report.  Significant weather events or degradation of containment facilities can breach the tailings, contaminating groundwater that feeds into local water sources.

“Tailings will remain radioactive for thousands of years,” Paul Locke, chair of the NAS committee and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said during a press conference Monday. He added that although modern technology has improved containments, data do not exist on the long-term effects of current containment technology.

Locke said that below-grade tailing containment, which is currently being proposed by Virginia Uranium, is a safer option for the storage of tailings, but that current regulations do allow for above-ground containment.

“The best practice is to build these below grade,” Locke said. But he pointed out that Colorado regulations did allow the storage of containments above ground.

Virginia Uranium said the study showed that uranium mining could be done under modern standards.

“The study shows that major technological and regulatory advances over the past 30 years have dramatically improved the environmental and public health performance of the uranium mining and milling industry,” Virginia Uranium Inc. Project Manager Patrick Wales said in a statement.  “Virginia Uranium is committed to continuing that process by adopting the best practices and regulatory requirements identified by the NAS as essential to protecting the environment and public health.”

Environmentalist groups had a different conclusion about the study. “The NAS study does not demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that uranium mining in Virginia’s wet climate will pose absolutely no threat to public health and safety, we expect our governor and public servants to sustain their commitment and keep the uranium mining ban in place,” said Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association. “In fact, the study lists potentially insurmontable challenges in addressing the technological and regulatory problems with uranium mining in Virginia.”

The report recommended that Virginia use best practices in uranium mining that are outlined by the World Nuclear Association, International Atomic Energy Agency, and International Radiation Protection Association.

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