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The largest uranium deposit in the United States is in Pittsylvania County at a 3,000-acre site called Coles Hill.
The uranium was found in 1979, but a 1982 moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia has prevented any development of the site for 40 years.
Several attempts to repeal the moratorium have been unsuccessful since then. The most recent, in 2013, was so unpopular that it was pulled before even going to committee.
But a recent transaction may mean that another push to undo the moratorium is on the horizon.
On Nov. 15, Consolidated Uranium announced its acquisition of Virginia Energy Resources, Inc., the company that owns Coles Hill.
Walter Coles, Sr. is the CEO and chairman of Virginia Energy Resources, and he owns and operates a cattle and grain business on the Coles Hill property. Consolidated Uranium, Inc. is a Toronto-based company that owns uranium projects in four countries, including the United States.
Marty Tunney, president and chief operating officer of Consolidated Uranium, said the company has no current, formal plans to push to overturn the moratorium.
“We don’t have anything set in stone right now,” Tunney said. “Eventually, I’m sure we’ll get to the point where we have a more cohesive plan for that.”
Instead, Consolidated Uranium’s main focus right now is educating people about how uranium can be mined safely and in an environmentally friendly way, he said.
“A lot of the work, historically, that people have pointed to in the sector as unsafe, it’s fairly dated information,” Tunney said. “Technologically, the work has come a long way in the last 60 years.”
Only a handful of U.S. states have operating uranium mines: Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nebraska and Texas. Uranium can also be recovered without mining, in an environmentally safe process known as in-situ recovery, according to the Uranium Producers of America.
Tunney is optimistic that the moratorium will eventually be overturned, he said.
“I think there will come a time when the state comes around and says that this is something that would make sense,” Tunney said. “I don’t have a sense of the timing on that. But I think it’s going to come down to the educational process and the realization that it’s economically beneficial to the state and could be done safely.”
Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 2022 energy plan, which is enthusiastic about nuclear energy, has contributed to that viewpoint.
Youngkin wants to build a small nuclear reactor, a nuclear fission reactor used to generate power and heat, in Southwest Virginia. These reactors don’t exist on a commercial basis right now, and Youngkin wants to be the first state to commercialize this technology.
He said he will propose $10 million for research and development of innovative energy technology, like nuclear.
Half of that would go toward “achieving the groundbreaking research necessary to deliver on our moonshot mission to establish the very first small modular reactor right here in Southwest Virginia within the next 10 years,” Youngkin said in October during an appearance in Wise County.
In a video presentation announcing the transaction, Consolidated Uranium’s CEO Philip Williams referenced Youngkin’s plan, saying it goes “all-in” on nuclear power.
“Particularly within this state, there are opportunities to advance nuclear power both in terms of the generation but also in terms of research and development,” Williams said. “Governor Youngkin has a specific plan to highlight nuclear energy and put a lot of resources towards it.”
Williams called Virginia a “pro-nuclear” state. “And we think, ultimately, it will become a pro-uranium mining state,” he said.
But Youngkin himself hasn’t actually endorsed overturning the moratorium. When asked by Cardinal News in a recent interview, he implied that there’s enough already-mined uranium, which is recyclable, to support the energy plan.
About 14% of the power in Virginia comes from nuclear energy. There are four reactors operating in two power plants in the state, and those plants need up to 2 million pounds of uranium per year.
With the moratorium in place, that uranium is being imported from other places in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
But the Coles Hill site sits on around 163.3 million pounds of uranium, which is far more than the other largest uranium deposits in the country. The second largest, in Wyoming, has 53.6 million pounds. This information comes from resources that Virginia put out in 2013, Williams said.
This much uranium could power Virginia’s two current nuclear power plants for the next 80 years, said Williams.
Still, Virginia and the region around Coles Hill has been historically unsupportive of uranium mining.
Vic Ingram, chairman of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, said he thinks a small minority of residents might support it, but the vast majority will not.
“I remember when this thing first started many moons ago, and it was only just a few people that were in support of the mining,” he said. “What most people said is that if we allowed mining to take place, it would make a few people filthy rich, and the rest of us would end up having to live with the results.”
Ingram said he doesn’t know much about the new technologies to mine uranium safety, but even so, he said overturning the moratorium would be a “very, very tough decision for me.”
“I know the technology has changed and been improved, and I know the importance of having energy such as uranium,” he said. “But how much of your community do you sacrifice for this to happen?”
Specifically, Ingram said he’s concerned about land, water and air contamination, and the effect uranium mining might have on economic development.
“We’ve been doing a great deal to create economic development in our county in an acceptable format that would be good for the region,” Ingram said. “I fear that companies would look the other way if we allow uranium mining to take place, and we cannot we cannot let that happen.”
Ingram mentioned the Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill, the largest mega site in the Southwest U.S., which is expected to land a major developer in the next few years.
“What’s going on at the mega site, we would not jeopardize that for absolutely nothing,” he said.
Still, Tunney said that people might be more on board if they knew about the safety precautions, regulations, and advanced technology of recent uranium mining, instead of looking at outdated examples.
There are water and air quality standards that need to be met, he said, and the standards for uranium mining are typically much higher than other kinds of mining.
“I’d expect this project to have very stringent standards put upon it, just given the scale of it,” Tunney said.
Consolidated Uranium has 18 projects around the world, located in the western United States, Canada, Argentina and Australia. The company was formed in 2020 to “capitalize on an anticipated uranium market resurgence.”
The Coles Hill project strengthens Consolidated Uranium’s global portfolio, Williams said.
And the U.S. is an important jurisdiction in the uranium mining industry, he said. It’s the largest consumer of nuclear power in the world, consuming 18,300 metric tons in 2020. But there’s not much domestic production.
“You have the largest consumer with zero domestic supply, and that’s something that the government wants to change,” Williams said. “The government is very much in favor of domestic supply, and we believe that Coles Hill will be an important component in supplying domestic demand.”
Global uranium demand is expected to increase 27% between 2021 and 2030, and another 38% between 2031 and 2040, according to The Reference Scenario of the 2021 edition of the World Nuclear Association’s Nuclear Fuel Report.
This transaction with Virginia Energy Resources will need approval by shareholders during a meeting planned to happen early in the new year, Williams said in the video presentation.
“We have strong support for the transaction,” he said. “Not only did the directors and officers in Virginia [Energy Resources] support the transaction, but two of their main shareholders, Energy Fuels and Mega Uranium, also supported the transaction.”
Both Consolidated Uranium and Virginia Energy Resources are publicly traded companies. Consolidated Uranium has a market capitalization of about $140 million, and Virginia Energy has a market capitalization of almost $28 million.
According to the terms of the transaction, Virginia Energy Resources shareholders will receive 0.26 of a common share of Consolidated Uranium for each Virginia Energy share held.
“Existing shareholders of Consolidated Uranium and Virginia Energy will own approximately 82.4% and 17.6%, respectively, of the outstanding [Consolidated Uranium] shares on closing of the transaction,” the Nov. 15 release said.
The total purchase price is $32 million. But any potential financial incentive to the county isn’t swaying Ingram.
“As a supervisor, revenue is always important,” he said. “It helps pay our bills and keeps our tax rate low. But I would never entertain something that would jeopardize the safety of individuals as well as the environment.”
Still, he looks forward to learning more about new technology and safe practices, he said, adding that education on any sort of progression is very important.
This is likely to be a contentious issue going forward, as it has been in the past, Ingram said.
“For [Consolidated Uranium] to invest that kind of money, I think they are pretty confident that the moratorium will be lifted,” Ingram said. “It’s going to be a hotly debated topic.”
Ingram’s main priority is doing what’s best for the region, he said. And he’s not sure that uranium mining is it.
“When you look at projects like this, through the years, it can end up making communities into ghost towns,” Ingram said. “The ones that make the money, they get to pack it up, move away and leave the rest of us walking around glowing in the dark.”