Virginia Uranium’s Strangely Short Half-Life

Peter Galuszka

After years building up to a critical mass, Virginia’s uranium controversy never quite reached fission.

State Sen. John Watkins, a Republican and uranium backer from Powhatan, pulled the plug on his pro-mining bill Thursday as it faced certain death at a Senate committee. There are a couple of other legislative efforts out there, but it probably safe to say that the state’s now 31-year-old ban on mining uranium stays.

This year’s dramatic battle joined well-pocketed interest groups from both sides. Virginia Uranium, which wants to develop the 119 million pound deposit near Chatham, had given thousands of dollars in donations, trips and gifts to many legislators. Anti-mining advocates, including the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach who feared for their drinking water sources, hired their own advocacy muscle. Ordinary folks down in the gently rolling hills of Pittsylvania County organized a strikingly tightly-disciplined and effective anti-mining campaign.

At the end of the day, however, the real reason uranium failed lurks behind the scenes far from the polished floors of the State Capitol.

The fact is that the dynamics of energy pricing are undergoing a huge change in this country. A flood of natural gas, some from controversial “fracking” drilling methods, is making other forms of electricity generation, notably nuclear, financially less attractive.

Back in 2007, uranium prices were about $140 a pound. That touched off a renewed effort to mine the Coles Hill Farm tract in Pittsylvania County, one of the country’s largest uranium deposits.

As both sides of the argument poured money into lobbyists’ pockets, something happened that was beyond their control. Uranium prices set by global demand started dropping. By 2010, they had plummeted to about $70 a pound because of the global economic slowdown. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, they fell to the mid-$40-a-pound level, where they are now.

What that means for uranium mining in Virginia can be explained with simple arithmetic. According to Brett Arends of the Wall Street Journal, “The industry needs prices to be at $75 to $80 a pound for future mine production to be profitable.” In other words, for Virginia Uranium’s project to work, prices would likely need to rebound by about $30 a pound. I have noted this in a previous blog.

The bad news for uranium continues. According to another article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, U.S. utilities are starting to shut down or consider dropping some of their nuclear power stations because of unexpectedly cheap natural gas. Richmond-based Dominion Resources has announced it is shutting down its Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin this summer, even though it has 20 years left on its operating license.

Dominion says it is cheaper for it to meet its sales contracts with other utilities by buying electricity on the open market. Presumably that means electricity created by gas. Industry analysts believe that other nuclear utilities that might consider shutting down or have already idled some of their nuclear operations are Exelon Corp., Entergy Corp., Edison International and Duke Energy Corp.

The invasion of natural gas also means tough times for the future of nuclear power, which just a couple of years ago seemed on the verge of a rebound. According to the Journal, fixed costs for a power stations run $15,000 per megawatt for a modern gas plant, $30,000 for a coal plant and $90,000 for a nuclear plant. The newspaper notes that nukes also have extra costs because they need more security guards and have more demanding maintenance and spent fuel storage issues. It is hard to recover the higher costs because regulators who set electricity rates in some states require utilities to go with the cheapest fuel possible.

To be sure, demand for nuclear power still looks promising in places such as India and China, but that is unlikely to result in a spike in global uranium prices for at least a few years.

This all made Virginia Uranium’s proposal look shakier than ever, despite all of the hullaballoo, battling op-ed pieces in newspapers and expenses-paid trips to Paris and Canada organized by the firm.

For now, at least, uranium is dead. Its killer was cold, hard economics.

4 Responses to Virginia Uranium’s Strangely Short Half-Life

  1. Pretty solid analysis, Peter. I doubt the uranium folks would have won the battle even if uranium prices had remained high. But low uranium prices assuredly deflated their case — and their willingness to dump more money into their lobbying/PR campaign. Given the political realities in Virginia and the economic realities internationally, I doubt they’ll be back any time soon.

  2. Excellent post, Peter. I’ve heard the same economic argument from several engineers I respect.

  3. Excellent post, Peter. I’ve heard the same economic argument from several engineers I respect.

  4. Fine article. Thanks, Peter.

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