Even NAS Braniacs Have Unanswered Questions about Uranium Mining

by James A. Bacon

The National Academy of Sciences report on uranium mining in Virginia covers a lot of ground, as anyone who peruses the 290-page document can attest. But the panel of co-authors attending a public presentation of the report in downtown Richmond last night conceded that there was a lot that they didn’t know — often because their study mandate did not include evaluating specific mining sites.

Paul A. Locke, chairman of the NAS study committee

As it happens, while uranium has been detected in some 55 spots around the state (as shown on the map above), only one site, the Coles Hill Farm in Pittsylvania County, has potential for commercial grade production, said Paul A. Locke, chairman of the committee and a Johns Hopkins University professor of public health. Members of the audience asked numerous questions about the feasibility of mining uranium at Coles Hill in a environmentally safe manner, but committee members could answer only with vague generalities, if at all.

Lisa Guthrie, executive director, Virginia League of Conservation Voters

Among the questions outside the scope of the NAS study:

  • Will there be a large up-front cost to establish a regulatory regime for uranium mining, considering that Virginia has no existing regulatory apparatus and no existing uranium-mining industry from which to generate licensing revenue?
  • Given the fact that uranium tailings remain radioactive for thousands of years, long after the mining company will cease to exist, what mechanisms exist to monitor and ensure environmental compliance of an impoundment site over the long term?
  • How much radiation is likely to leak in the event of an extreme event such as an earthquake or massive flood — an amount equivalent to the radiation from a radium watch… or a Chernobyl disaster?

Further, neither Locke or other board members could point to specific Best Practices that should be implemented for uranium mining and processing at Coles Hill. Speaking generally, they said that technological and regulatory advances over the past two or three decades have vastly improved the safety and environmental health of uranium mining. No other uranium mine in the world exactly matches the Pittsylvania site in terms of geology, climate and surrounding population, but a mix-and-match approach, picking Best Practices on the basis of specific characteristics, should be feasible.

Neither did the NAS board conduct a “probabilistic risk assessment,” an exercise that would be possible only for a specific site. But Locke did acknowledge that site-specific analysis and risk assessment of Coles Hill would be critical for the mining project to move forward.

The Coles Hill ore deposit is the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the United States and the seventh largest in the world, according to Virginia Uranium Inc., the company lobbying to lift the moratorium on uranium mining in the state. Gov. Bob McDonnell has assembled a Uranium Working Group staffed by state employees to examine risks associated with uranium mining and analyze how they could be addressed by regulation.

The working group has scheduled four public hearings between June and November, launched a web portal and set up mechanisms to accept questions and comments from the public. Fearing that critical Working Group decisions might be made behind closed doors, environmental groups have expressed concerns about the transparency of the process.

In a letter to legislators Martin L. Kent, McDonnell’s chief of staff, responded to those concerns: “This working group is solely focused on scientific, legal, regulatory, and factual questions that need to be further examined. If the General Assembly directs the agencies to promulgate appropriate regulations to govern uranium mining, that is a separate process.”

(See PeterG’s coverage of a previous NAS meeting in Danville here.)

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Good post, albeit familiar stuff. Here’s another cite:


  2. mcp10981 Avatar

    James Bacon, You nailed it! thanks for being there, The folks in Danville and the 2 million people downstream that rely on the roanoke river for their drinking water are grateful for your accuracy in reporting this important issue!

  3. you know the funny (not) thing? how many miles of polluted rivers does Virginia have that pretty conclusively shows how successful it’s been at keeping unhealthy substances out of the rivers?

    And how fast are they cleaning it out? They’re losing ground right?

    PCBs in our rivers…. ??? Va has a less than wonderful record at properly regulation waste to keep it out of the rivers. Why should we believe that Va can keep the runoff from these tailings out of the rivers?

  4. larryg Avatar

    worth reading: ” Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous”


    you know the funny thing? we’ve got all these contaminated sites in the various states but guess who cleans them up? Yup.. the big, bad, nasty, Federal Govt….not the State Govt that originally allowed the contamination.

    “States Rights” and all that rot.

  5. Speaking as a newcomer to this issue, I would suggest that any uranium mining company should be required (a) to adopt internationally recognized Best Practices, and (b) to set aside enough money in a fund (that cannot be touched) for the purpose of monitoring the tailings in perpetuity and insuring against the possibility of leakage. That may be expensive. Too bad. These costs should not be foisted on society as a whole.

  6. larryg Avatar

    obviously – any set-aside bonding would ultimately be incorporated into the price of the product.

    What I’d like to see the state do is compute the cost of the bonding and then analyze the effect of it on the price of the product relative to the competition and then weigh in on whether or not the venture is economically viable given the mitigation money required.

    It’s all about what to do with the tailings and even if they are entombed – there usually is a predicted service life on the membranes used to entomb the site.

    the top covering would have to be renewed over and over , far into the future, hundreds of years. A fund would have to be created that would earn enough to pay out enough money for the replacement covers.

    I would seem to me that any assumption short of that.. is flawed because without a lifetime plan.. ultimately the coverings will fail and rainwater will begin the leeching process.

    Even the one on the Native American reservation in the article.. in an area in an Arid Climate is leeching into the rivers now.

    My view is that instead of the two sides fighting this as an all or nothing proposition, that they should see the facts on what it would take to keep the tailings from leeching … there is a cost to that… and that cost ought to be found out… and once it is found out – the proponents may well take the position that it is too much. At that point, they lose – because a good study tells us the cost – and the consequences of not paying that cost and it may well be that in this particular geography that it’s simply not an economically viable operation if you insist on no leeching – period.

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