Regulating Uranium Mining Would Be Huge Task

By Peter Galuszka

Virginia appears to be reaching a critical mass regarding uranium mining and milling in Pittsylvania County.

Today, the Uranium Working Group issued its report outlining what steps would be needed if Virginia were to lift its 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining. Meanwhile, the powerful Virginia Farm Bureau joined a group of mining opponents including The Virginia Association of Counties, Virginia Beach and Norfolk which are strongly against lifting the ban.

Created by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, the working group spent months researching what would need to be done if the ban were lifted and Virginia Uranium applied for permits to mine some 119 million pounds of uranium ore worth possibly $7 billion near Chatham. The group did not make any recommendations but is providing information should the General Assembly take up lifting the ban in January.

The report says there are two choices. Should Virginia regulate uranium mining and milling? Or should the milling operation be handled by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission which has the authority and experience to oversee it. (The NRC does not oversee mining but milling or refining ore).

If the state takes on the regulatory responsibility, it will need substantial new government resources including roughly 30 new professionals spread across such agencies as the Department of Mines Minerals and Energy, the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Quality. They would cost maybe $5 million or more which the report says could be paid from fees charged mining firms. There wasn’t an estimate on local government costs.

The state would need authority from the NRC and that process could take three years. Only a handful of western states have it.

The state would still be involved if the NRC were to oversee milling. An environmental assessment must be done before mining operations are begun. Virginia would still have authority over air or water emissions from the uranium operation.

Uranium would take the state’s regulatory apparatus to a new level. Oversight would been needed for airborne radioactive emissions, drinking water, well-water, livestock within two miles of the operation, water for recreational swimming, worker safety, truck dust and a host of other matters. Financial safeguards in the forms of bonds would have to be paid upfront to protect against mishap plus plans for emergency responses would need to be put in place. (I’ll get into more as I digest the report).

In other words, it’s a very tall order. And, the report says it can’t be started unless the moratorium is lifted.

Interest in mining Southside Virginia uranium subsided after the ban 30 years ago but was renewed in 2007 at Coles Hill Farm when prices rebounded strongly. A new proposal by local residents and their Canadian investors has been racked by controversy ever since with company officials taking legislators on expenses-paid trips to France (Paris included), supposedly to gather information. There have been a series of studies including a couple by economists saying the proposal could bring in plenty of money and another by the National Academy of Sciences raising serious questions about safety, notably since Tidewater cities get their drinking water from lakes nearby.

If the ban is lifted, it still will be some years before Virginia could establish its complex regulatory structures if that’s what it chooses to do. Where uranium prices will be then is anyone’s guess. Spot prices for uranium yellowcake reached the mid $70s/pound level in early 2011 but took a huge tumble after the Fukushima reactor disaster in March of that year. They are now around $40/pound.

So, is it all worth the risk and hassle?

20 Responses to Regulating Uranium Mining Would Be Huge Task

  1. “So, is it all worth the risk and hassle?”

    For Seven Billion Dollars?

  2. The $7 billion is an estimate. It would go to investors while the the public and other businesses in Southside and Tidewater would bear true risk. As the story notes, the National Academy of Sciences has serious doubts and the Farm Bureau says no. I would not be so dismissive in such an off hand way.

  3. I am not being dismissive at all. Simply asking the Question, Peter.

    I wonder if a full study been or is being done that estimates direct and indirect economic benefit that would be derived from this single project. I assume not. That such a study was not within the mandate of the report.

  4. Two economic reports were done and their references can be found in the report.

  5. thanks, I’ll take a look.

  6. Perhaps the biggest unknown here is the financing feasibility of the project given the huge drop in the value of “Yellow Cake.” To the degree the project is still viable, there is nothing wrong if people make a profit. Indeed, there is much right about people taking the risk and making the efforts demanded by their endeavor in order to make a profit, for themselves and invariability for others as well.

    Secondly, it’s important to appreciate the benefits to the local community and the Commonwealth. Far too often people tend to dismiss the incredible ripple effect of wealth generated by any enterprise that hires and pays substantial numbers of citizens for the valuable services they perform.

    Most importantly, their work put food on their family tables, and it gives the working individuals the skills they need to stay employed, and it spreads their wealth through out the community, spinning off collateral benefits to those in the neighborhood, whether shop owner, barbers or whatever.

    Regarding Health and Environmental Risk:

    Since people have been taking large amounts of uranium out of the ground for well over 60 years, such risks can surely be defined by looking at the facts revealed by the historically record – the death, sickness, and contamination, and trends related thereto – over those past sixty years.

    In this regard, I found the Rep0rt of the National Academy of Science to be woefully inadequate. It reads not like science but like a political document. It obviously is. That’s plain from the very words in the document.

    The Regulatory Scheme in the Report takes one breath away. Its complexity and convolution astounds. Only the mind of man creates such schemes.

    Someone is making a good living out of this for sure. Guess who? The regulators. I’m for serious enforcement of health and safety. Here, however, its obvious that sixty years has created a monstrosity. One that’s lost all sense of perspective and common sense. Perhaps to the point that its rendered itself incompetent to protect the public against real threats.

  7. in terms of regulation and science, take a look at this:

    http://www.epa.gov/reg3hwmd/npl/VAD980705404.htm

    and note this:

    ” Site Responsibility

    Cleanup of this site is the responsibility of the federal and state governments, and the potentially responsible parties..

    so I have two questions for you:

    1. what if this contaminant was radioactive?

    2. how do you think this happened ? from too much regulation and “science”?

    Bonus Question:

    what should be REQUIRED of uranium mining that was not required for titanium mining?

    lest you believe Va has done a good job protecting the environment:

    http://www.epa.gov/reg3hwmd/super/va.htm

  8. in terms of regulation and science, take a look at this:

    http://www.epa.gov/reg3hwmd/npl/VAD980705404.htm

    and note this:

    ” Site Responsibility

    Cleanup of this site is the responsibility of the federal and state governments, and the potentially responsible parties..

    so I have two questions for you:

    1. what if this contaminant was radioactive?

    2. how do you think this happened ? from too much regulation and “science”?

    Bonus Question:

    what should be REQUIRED of uranium mining that was not required for titanium mining?

    • Like Peter, I attended Georgetown Prep then went to RMA for a year at Front Royal. Right behind RMA, bordering the football field and track there was a Chemical or Rayon plant (or some such) along the river.

      So, every time I get sick I fear its from toxins in my lungs from that plant. Or, if not, its from the years of my running behind and playing within the DDT spray of trucks used to kill bugs on Marine Corps bases during the 1950s. Or my eating fish out of the Potomac River need Key Bridge.

      The lack of understanding about, and oversight for, environmental risks in those days fifty years ago was grossly inadequate. We were ignorant.

      So all these Super Fund sites are perfectly understandable when considered against that background. Most every gas station in the nation qualified. But we need to be very careful when using them oday as proof of today’s threats to the environment.

  9. lest you believe Va has done a good job protecting the environment:

    http://www.epa.gov/reg3hwmd/super/va.htm

  10. I don’t agree that uranium mining has created a “monstrosity” of regulators. As far as impacts, ask the Navajo and other people in the Southwest about what happened to them in the 1940s and 1950s. Since then, there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of uranium mining because the Cold Water is over and the need for nuclear weapons has steeply declining. Plus, a significant portion of our commercial reactor needs has come from reprocessing U.S. and Russian weapons.

    As far as the impacts on local people in Southside Va., mining won’t really employ that many. And you have to ask yourself why so many there oppose mining and milling. They have the right to ask if the food mining would supposedly put on their table will be radioactive.

    If you want to se how well mining in general is regulated, I suggest you take a drive to the Appalachian coalfields.

  11. Peter -
    I agree with you about the chronic failure of oversight in coal mining. Those failure never fail to pop up every so often with painful consequences. As your book points out so well.

    And, of course, there’re many other examples. Such as the incredible failure of SEC regulators to see what was in the front of their face in the Bernie Madoff fraud. Or the slowly unfolding train wreck that was the Fannie Mae Wall Street securitization into tranches of sub-prime mortgage fiasco. You could see this coming from the early 1990′s. It was hiding in plain sight for that long, and no one wanted to see it.

    Far too often and too easily we all get lost in process, losing sight of goals. Or we shift around original goals to those that fit our own purposes. It’s part of human nature, apparently, whether operating in public or private.

    As regards the mining abuses of the 1940 and 1950, those are horrific abuses. From which I assume many hard lessons were learned, thus applied to best practices today. And so there should be a long record since of vast improvements in the science of extraction, and lapses as well, both nationally and internationally. This is what interests me. What I would look at and evaluate closely in an effort to understand current reality. And I would look hard at the regulatory process as well.

    But in the end we need to focus over overcoming challenges to create wealth for our people, not hiding from opportunities.

    Regarding local economic impact, I looked for but was unable to find those impact statements you mentioned earlier. At least I did not see them attached to the report in downloadable form.

  12. re: gas stations are superfund sites.

    hardly.

    the point about superfund sites is that even as they were being identified – there were the same anti-regulation voices in opposition and I see that same kind of attitude now with regard to uranium mining.

    We have a history and a pattern of grossly underestimating the potential damage that some activities can cause – much less how we’d clean them up afterwards or who has to pay.

  13. Reed,
    Actually Larry’s right. Very few gasoline sites would qualify as “Superfund” under the law. I used to cover this stuff about 30 years af=go.
    As far as Lejeune, I’ve read a lot about drinking water hazards but it was long after I was a young boy there.

  14. Your right about most 1950 gas stations. Still they’d be put of business today and rightfully so.

    At Camp Lejeune I recall helicopters falling out of the sky. One sent a rotor blade through the front of our house into the living room. The rest of the machine crumbled up outside the bay window, spewing gas. Aviation fuel everywhere. Now that should have been a mini super-fund site.

  15. Reed – you need to read up on the criteria for something being a superfund site.

    Fuel tanks at gas stations can be and are re-mediated and there is even a fund for doing that – and that fund comes from a earmarked portion of Federal Fuel taxes.

    http://www.epa.gov/oust/ltffacts.htm

    fuel tanks, even leaking fuel tanks are not superfund sites.

  16. Ha – the skilled engineer versus the amateur philosopher. Will the twain ever meet?

  17. Toxins, radioactivity, yes, it’s a matter of degree and magnitude. The proposed Coles Hill project would be displacing and pulverizing such a vast amount of earth, uranium ore, groundwater…the site is the size of downtown Richmond, from VCU to Shockoe Bottom & the center of the James to MCV. Six to eight forty acre containment ponds for tailings, will be required, lined with clay and 60 mil poly liners.

    Given the radioactive elements will be a management issue for longer than humanity has populated the planet and the heavy metals will always remain and be toxic, this just seems like too big a risk to manage into perpetuity in one of the most desirable areas to live and farm.

    • This may be correct. It’s only that I have see evidence yet that it is correct as it relates to the project in this place at this time by these parties involved.

      At the same time, over many years, I have experienced so many scare tactics on so many environmental issues, that I remain skeptical until I see hard evidence based on real historic experience as analyzed by impartial authority.

      And I will take a back seat of no one on my concern for the environment.

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