Pittsylvania residents and local legislators aren’t keen on overturning the uranium mining moratorium in Virginia. They say uranium mining is dangerous, posing health, safety, and environmental hazards to the community.
But Consolidated Uranium, a Toronto-based company that will acquire the Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania, the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the country, says that uranium mining can be done in a safe, environmentally friendly way.
Who’s right? Here’s what experts are saying. Spoiler alert: it’s a little bit of both.
“The risks are real,” said Paul Locke, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Locke chaired the Committee on Uranium Mining in Virginia, which produced a 2012 report with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine at the request of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The report outlines many potential hazards of uranium mining in the state.
“These risks that we cataloged in the report, they came from other uranium mining sites,” Locke said. “It’s not theoretical stuff. We went to other sites and studied them.”
Now 10 years old, the data-driven report could use updates, Locke said.
But “ultimately, the structure of the report and the information we have in there forms a good framework for thinking about uranium mining in Virginia” and “the conclusions of the report are still accurate,” he said.
The report doesn’t make a recommendation about ending or upholding the moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia, which has been in place since 1982 and withstood several attempts to overturn it since then.
Instead, the report provides data and science to inform Virginia legislators, who have the power to make that decision.
If the moratorium is rescinded, the report says that “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and/or processing could be established” in a way that protects health and safety of workers, the public and the environment.
But Michael Karmis, Virginia Tech professor emeritus, said that mining uranium “is not really any different” from mining other kinds of hard rock. Regulations and best practices to address safety and environmental concerns are common across the mining industry, he said.
Karmis taught in the mining and mineral engineering department at Virginia Tech and led the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research for 14 years. He also supported research into mining safety and sustainability at Tech.
“Through technology and through regulatory controls, we have tried, successfully, to manage and control both the health and safety issues, as well as the environmental issues [of uranium mining],” he said.
Let’s take a look at the primary concerns associated with uranium mining.
Health, Safety and the Environment
Karmis said health and safety concerns can be broken down into two categories: concerns for the workers and concerns for the community.
And then there are environmental concerns, as uranium mining has long been understood as being unfriendly to the environment.
There are three methods to mine uranium: open-pit, underground, and in-situ mining.
“Throughout the 60+ year history of uranium mining in the U.S., the majority of uranium ore mined has been via conventional open pit or underground methods,” according to the Uranium Producers of America.
These two methods are more destructive to the environment.
Today, there are no open-pit or underground mines in operation, according to the 2021 Domestic Uranium Production Report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
And there are over 500 abandoned uranium mines in Navajo Nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The state of New Mexico alone, where over 52 million tons of uranium was extracted between 1940 and 1990, has identified 97 uranium mines that require assessment and possible cleanup, according to the EPA’s 5-Year Grants Mining District Plan.
All domestic production of uranium is done through in-situ recovery, which is widely considered a more environmentally friendly way to mine uranium because it doesn’t involve explosives or chemical processes.
With this technique, the ore is left where it is in the ground and minerals are recovered by dissolving them in a solution that is pumped to the surface.
There were three operational in-situ recovery plants in the U.S. at the end of 2021, with nine others on standby and 10 more planned for four states: New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, according to the Domestic Uranium Production Report.
This is the most popular method to mine uranium today, but Virginia’s geology makes it unconducive to this technique, according to the National Academies report.
One thing to keep in mind, Karmis said, is that mining is a mature industry. And not just coal mining, which Virginia is most familiar with, but also mining for metals like uranium, gold and copper.
Because of this, there are strict regulations enforced by many agencies to ensure health, safety, and environmental protection, Karmis said.
State agencies, as well as federal agencies like the Mine Safety Health Administration, EPA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may be involved to ensure any mining operation meets compliance requirements, he said.
“Operations are visited and inspected by state inspectors and federal inspectors routinely to be sure that there are not any kind of violations,” he said.
Plus, technology has advanced to the point where mining can be done remotely, he said, though people still have outdated conceptions of the industry.
“When people think of a coal miner, they think of someone with dust on his face and a shovel,” Karmis said. “But if you go to a coal mine, everything is operated with buttons, controls and joysticks.”
Still, other areas of the country where uranium mining has been more prevalent have encountered negative health and safety effects from the mining – especially affecting uranium mine workers.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine examined differences in chronic health outcomes between coal, uranium, metal and nonmetal miners.
“The general pattern of health risk for uranium miners is much more concerning” than health risks for miners in other sectors, the study said.
The study used data from health screenings that occurred between 2004 and 2014 on current and former miners, focusing solely on miners who worked in New Mexico, because of the “episodic history of uranium mining in the southwestern United States.”
The study examined health risks like heart attacks, cancer, back pain, arthritis, COPD and asthma, finding that “uranium miners suffer high risk across almost all health conditions examined here.”
And uranium miners outranked coal miners in all of the studied conditions.
For example, almost 80% of the 716 uranium miners in the study self-reported having pulmonary issues, while only 60% of 722 coal miners in the study did. And about 62% of the studied uranium miners self-reported having back pain, while only 43% of the studied coal miners did.
Almost 10% of the studied uranium miners self-reported having cancer, compared to about 6% of coal miners. And 14% of uranium miners in the study reported having a heart attack, while only 9% of coal miners did.
And almost 22% of uranium miners in the study self-reported having angina, a condition that causes severe chest and upper body pain from inadequate blood supply to the heart. This is much higher than the prevalence of angina among the general population of New Mexico adults, which was estimated to be only about 3%.
Age could have affected these results, the study said. New Mexico has a sizable population of older former uranium mine workers, since most uranium mines in the state closed in the 1980s, though some continued to operate until about 2002.
“Still, this finding of poorer health among uranium miners is consistent with past findings,” the study said.
The National Academies report also describes potential risks to mine workers, as well as the public.
“People living near uranium mines and processing facilities could be exposed to airborne radionuclides,” the report says, and workers could be exposed to radiation or at risk of inhaling silica dust and diesel exhaust fumes.
Environmental risks include elevated levels of trace metals, arsenic and uranium in groundwater, and localized reduction of groundwater levels, according to the report.
However, both health and safety risks and environmental risks could be substantially mitigated if uranium mining is done “according to modern, state-of-the-art methods, including maintaining exposures as low as is reasonably achievable, and if a culture of safety is developed at the mine and processing facility.”
This is consistent with Karmis’ point that uranium mining risks are lowered by new technology and regulatory measures.
Tailings and Waste
Tailings are the solid waste materials from uranium mining. They produce a radioactive gas called radon as they decay over thousands of years, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“About 80% to 90% of the radiation in the ore ends up in the tailings,” Locke said.
To keep tailings isolated, they’re placed in piles or impoundments, like large trenches or former mine pits that meet NRC criteria. They stay here for long-term storage or disposal in order to reduce the health hazards they pose.
But weather poses a threat to the security of tailings storage, according to the report.
“Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, extreme rainfall events, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such events, or if they fail to perform as designed,” the report says.
And this failure could lead to “significant human health and environmental effects,” it says.
Locke said that climate change and extreme weather events were considered in the study, but these issues are much more pressing today.
“We didn’t have a lot to say about that, because things were just starting to develop,” Locke said. “Now, we have a lot more data about it. That’s the kind of thing you have to plan for, because in the catastrophic events category, a storm could damage even the best-designed tailings pile.”
But all industries produce waste, Karmis said, and that waste always has to be controlled.
“In the mining industry, the best way to control your waste is to minimize it,” Karmis said. There are mining methods and techniques to do this, he said.
And tailings could actually be very useful in solving a major problem in America, he said: the lack of critical minerals.
Critical minerals are metallic or non-metallic elements that are crucial for modern technology, economies, and national security to function.
The United States depends on foreign sources for these minerals, namely China, which controls most of the market for processing and refining them. The country is working to establish a domestic supply chain for critical minerals, according to the Biden-Harris administration.
“Now, we are getting our best hope for critical minerals for mine waste storage areas, such as gob piles and tailings,” Karmis said. “You can reduce your tailings by creating other downstream valuable products, thus observing circular economy principles.”
Karmis said he’s “not surprised that citizens are concerned” about tailings, because there have been disasters in the past. But most of these happened in artisanal mines, facilities that are not properly engineered or designed according to best practice standards.
“I fully understand the concern,” he said. “What I would say is that there are now well-accepted best practices and standards to ensure stability, isolating any toxic material, with also the possibility to produce a different value-added product from the tailings.”
Economics of Uranium Mining
Uranium itself is a critical mineral, and so the U.S. is also trying to increase its domestic production of uranium.
As of 2021, the U.S. gets 35% of its uranium from Kazakhstan and 14% from Russia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
And the price and demand of uranium is projected to increase significantly, Karmis said.
“We’re not self-sufficient,” he said. “We are importing from people that we don’t trust, and any kind of interruption of supply will be dearly felt by everybody. Not just the defense people, or the nuclear power plant, but everybody.”
But another almost 30% of U.S. uranium imports comes from Canada and Australia. “We have very good relations with Canada,” Locke said.
And uranium may be available from sources other than mining, like demilitarizing nuclear weapons, Locke said. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has mentioned recycling uranium as another solution.
The economics of uranium mining can be complex, but Karmis said there’s also a “nontechnical, common sense way” of thinking about it.
The fact that Consolidated Uranium is interested in Coles Hill means the company has decided that there is “a business case to proceed with the considerable investment necessary to establish a world class operation in the Virginia deposit.”
“Why would they make an investment if there wasn’t a business case?” he said.
In addition to regulations and compliance with best practices, Karmis said that a successful mining project needs the support and acceptance of the community.
“You need to have the mining permit and the social permit,” he said. “A company may have a permit to do something, but if the community totally opposes it, it’s not going to be a long-term operation. Any industry understands that.”
And Pittsylvania residents have been traditionally opposed to uranium mining at Coles Hill, so this could pose a challenge for Consolidated Uranium.
Virginia legislators have also been opposed. The last attempt to overturn the moratorium in 2013 was so unpopular that it was pulled before going to committee.
The company should take time to explain all of the regulations and best practices to the community, Karmis said. Many people believe that if the moratorium is lifted, the mine will start operating right away, he said.
“That’s not the case,” he said. “Lifting the moratorium does not mean there is permission to mine. This will just allow the company to submit comprehensive mining and processing plans that can be scrutinized by the state and federal agencies, and also by the public.”
This process requires an incredible amount of documentation, he said, all of which has to be site-specific.
“Examples from other parts of the world are important for developing best practices, but the final plan of the operation will be based on site-specific data and conditions,” Karmis said.
The report echoed this sentiment, saying that the exact nature of any adverse effects of uranium mining in Virginia “would depend on site-specific conditions.”
Because of this, Locke said that more information about Coles Hill would be useful. The report outlines “potential risks,” based on things that have happened in other places, he said, but more information is needed to determine whether there are “actual risks.”
“To the best of my knowledge, no detailed site assessment at Coles Hill has been done,” Locke said. “Until you do that, nobody can answer the question with any sort of certainty about whether there are actual risks.”