The best-selling book of 2012 was, um, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The second and third best-selling books that year were the two sequels. What can I say? Apparently 2012 was that kind of year.
I’ve spent some time recently reading another release from 2012, one that hasn’t been made into a movie and probably won’t be, but is potentially still relevant: “Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific, Technical, Environmental, Human Health, Safety and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium Mining and Processing.”
Back then, Virginia was pondering whether to lift its moratorium on uranium mining – a moratorium prompted by the discovery in 1978 of a large deposit beneath Coles Hill in northern Pittsylvania County. (While the deposit was found in 1978, its discovery wasn’t announced until 1982 so it’s fair to say that as soon as Virginia learned about the uranium, it slapped a moratorium on mining it in place.) In 2009, the state commissioned a report by the National Academy of Sciences to study, well, you see the tongue-twisting subtitle.
The report was delivered in 2012 and the next year an attempt to overturn the moratorium (at the behest of the company that owned the deposit) failed in the General Assembly – never even came to a vote for lack of support. A decade later, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is still cringe-worthy but this 360-page report remains quite relevant. Two things happened last fall to make it so. First, Gov. Glenn Youngkin rolled out his energy plan, which calls for an increasing reliance on nuclear energy – specifically the development of small reactors, including one in Southwest Virginia. Next, a Canadian uranium company bought the rights to that Pittsylvania deposit and announced that it hopes to see Virginia’s ban on mining overturned. Maybe not right away (no bill was introduced in this year’s legislature), but someday. Consolidated Uranium cited Youngkin’s energy plan as one of the reasons it’s interested in the Pittsylvania deposit. Youngkin, though, hasn’t pushed for mining. In an interview last fall with Cardinal News, he pushed for recycling nuclear fuel – 90% of the energy is still left after use – and has proposed state funding for this. That’s alarmed some on the anti-nuclear energy side; they say recycling nuclear fuel also makes it easier to siphon off nuclear fuel for weapons.
Whether Youngkin wants to mine for uranium or not, Consolidate Uranium sure wants to. Personally, as a longtime observer of the Virginia political scene, I’m skeptical whether that moratorium will ever be lifted. Republicans have generally been more pro-nuclear energy than Democrats, but Southside sends Republicans to Richmond and they’ve not been keen on uranium mining. In 2013, when the push to overturn the moratorium lacked enough support to warrant a vote, Republicans controlled both chambers of the General Assembly. If those on the pro-mining side couldn’t get a bill through then, I don’t see how they could now, when Democrats control the state Senate and Republicans have a narrow majority in the House (52-48 now versus 66-32 a decade ago). I cite the partisan makeup because Republicans have generally been more enthusiastic about nuclear energy than Democrats, although that enthusiasm hasn’t exactly translated into enthusiasm for mining uranium, especially in their districts.
Keep in mind that Southside legislators haven’t been the only ones opposed to uranium mining. The National Academy of Sciences report reminds me that Virginia Beach didn’t like the idea, either. The seaside city gets part of its water supply from Lake Gaston in Southside. The city feared that a bad storm in Pittsylvania County might wash radioactive tailings into Lake Gaston and in 2010 commissioned its own report that found such an incident would render the water unusable “for several months or more.” If you’re against uranium mining in Pittsylvania County, Virginia Beach is a pretty good ally to have. If you’re for it, you’ve got to find a way to assure Virginia Beach you’re not going to turn the city’s drinking water radioactive.
Still, history is full of unexpected political turnarounds, so let’s go back and re-read that National Academy of Sciences report to see what it says, shall we?
The first thing to know is that the academy wasn’t asked to take a position either for or against uranium mining. It was simply asked, Joe Friday-style, for the facts. Yes, I realize that’s a rather quaint concept. The committee that fashioned the report took public comment and visited existing uranium mines in Saskatchewan, a prairie province in Canada. So, on to the facts.
We have lots of uranium deposits in Virginia.
The report documented 55 places in Virginia where there’s uranium beneath the surface – including around Richmond, just outside Charlottesville and Martinsville, and one site just south of the Roanoke city limits. However, the only site with enough uranium to be commercially viable is the one at Coles Hill.
Virginia uranium mining would have to be through open pits or underground.
The report walked through three ways that uranium can be extracted: through open pit mining, underground mining or a chemical process called “leaching/in situ recovery” in which the ore is dissolved in liquid and that liquid is then pumped out and the ore recovered. The report said that for geological reasons, that process is “very unlikely” to work in Virginia, so if there’s uranium mining it would be either through open pits or underground mining.
Virginia’s weather is a challenge for uranium mining.
The report also warned that uranium mining in Virginia would face an obstacle that the country’s current uranium mines in the West don’t face: It rains a lot more here. And sometimes we get hurricanes. In the jargon of science, the report says “because almost all uranium mining and processing to date has taken place in parts of the United States that have a negative water balance, federal agencies have limited experience applying laws and regulations in positive water balance situations.”
One tricky part with uranium mining anywhere is dealing with the waste – the official term is tailings. They’re radioactive. (Think about all the waste piles of coal around far Southwest Virginia; now imagine they were radioactive. That’s a rough equivalent, so obviously they need to be treated differently.) “Modern tailings management sites are designed so that the tailings remain segregated from the water cycle, to control mobility of metals and radioactive contaminants, for at least 200 years and possibly up to 1,000 years,” the report says. That’s more easily done in the dry West than the more humid East. “Virginia is subject to relatively frequent storms that produce intense rainfall,” the report says. “It is questionable whether tailings repositories using state-of the-art design, modeling, and monitoring design could be expected to prevent erosion and surface-water and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years. 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 failure of a tailings facility could lead to significant human health and environmental effects. Failure of an aboveground tailings dam, for example, due to flooding, would allow a significant sudden release of ponded water and solid tailings into rivers and lakes.” That’s what had Virginia Beach concerned.
Even in the dry West, uranium mining is dangerous.
Much of the report dealt with ways that uranium mining can kill you. The short version is that the stuff is radioactive. For a slightly longer version, try this: “Protracted exposure to radon decay products generally represents the greatest radiation-related health risk from uranium-related mining and processing operations. Radon’s alpha-emitting radioactive decay products are strongly and causally linked to lung cancer in humans. Indeed, the populations in which this has been most clearly established are uranium miners that were occupationally exposed to radon.” The report repeated this multiple times in multiple ways.
Living near a uranium mine can be dangerous.
The report warned that “people living near uranium mines and processing facilities could be exposed to airborne radionuclides (e.g., radon, radioactive dust) originating from various sources including uranium tailings, waste rock piles, or wastewater impoundments. Exposure could also occur from the release of contaminated water, or by leaching of radioactive materials into surface or groundwater from uranium tailings or other waste materials. Eventually, released radioactive materials could end up in drinking water supplies or could accumulate in the food chain, ultimately ending up in the meat, fish, or milk produced in the area.”
In the end, the report made no recommendations yay or nay – that wasn’t the charge. It did advise, though, that if Virginia ever lifted the moratorium on uranium mining, “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and processing could be established in a way that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment.”
A lot has changed in the decade (or so) since that report came out. Technology has changed. The interest in nuclear energy – once declining but now ascending again with a push for a carbon-free grid – has certainly changed. But some things haven’t, this report being one of them. Those who want to make a push to lift Virginia’s moratorium on uranium mining will somehow have to deal with its less-than-encouraging conclusions.