Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Uranium Mining and Milling

Comments: A good report to use to send letters to VA leaders and ask to keep the uranium mining ban!

Uranium Mining and Milling
Authored by: Dan Holmes, Cale Jaffe, Katie Preston

Statement of the Issue

For 30 years, Virginia has maintained a ban prohibiting uranium mining in-state.

1 Virginia Uranium, Inc.(VUI) is now asking lawmakers to repeal that longstanding ban. VUI’s efforts have focused on a major uranium deposit in Southside Virginia, known as Coles Hill. The potential for uranium exploration, however, exists statewide. As a senior VUI executive explained, “Talking to the lead geologist, he’s insistent to this day that Coles Hill is the first of more major discoveries in Virginia.”

2 If uranium is mined and milled in Virginia, the resulting “yellowcake” would have to be shipped out-of-state to an enrichment facility.

What would be left behind in Virginia is the waste. According to VUI, the Coles Hill deposit has an average grade of 0.06 percent yellowcake.3 By contrast, the average grade of the McArthur River mine, in northern Saskatchewan, is more than 15 percent—254 times richer than Coles Hill.4 This means that Coles Hill would produce significantly more waste per pound of yellowcake produced.

To date, more than 40 governmental organizations—cities, counties, towns, and regional councils of government in Virginia and North Carolina—have passed resolutions in support of the ban.

In Virginia these include the towns of Halifax, Hurt, Clarksville and South Boston; the counties of Orange, Floyd and Roanoke; and the cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Suffolk and Portsmouth. Joining these communities are the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, Virginia Organizing, the Virginia Conference

of the United Methodist Church, the Halifax County (Va.) Farm Bureau, American Rivers, and the National Wildlife Federation, among many other groups. A full listing is at

Threat to Public Health:

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “about 85 percent of the original radioactivity in the ore remains [in the waste material] after the uranium is extracted.”5

These waste materials include Thorium-230, which has a radioactive half-life of 77,000 years, and Radium-226, with a half-life of 1,600 years. The National Academy has explained that these radionuclides “are common components of leached materials and airborne dusts from uranium ore tailings and waste piles” and “can pose a health hazard if inhaled or ingested.”

Exposure to toxic radiation from uranium mining, milling, and waste disposal is linked to higher incidence rates of childhood leukemia, respiratory disease, and kidney disease. These threats are not limited to the area directly surrounding the mining sites. They also affect downwind and downstream communities, including the Hampton Roads area

A Threat to Our Drinking Water:
According to the National Academy of Sciences, waste from uranium milling operations “can—if not controlled adequately—contaminate the local environment under certain conditions, in particular by seeping into water sources … This, in turn, can lead to a risk of cancer from drinking water.”

The city of Virginia Beach retained the Michael Baker Corporation, a global engineering firm, to research the potential for contamination of Lake Gaston from uranium waste during a major precipitation event, such as a hurricane. Lake Gaston is in the Roanoke River watershed, downstream from the Coles Hill mining and waste disposal sites. The cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake rely on Lake Gaston for up to 60 million gallons of water per day.6

Baker concluded that a catastrophic failure of uranium waste landfill sites (“containment cells”) at Coles Hill would potentially lead to radioactivity concentrations in Lake Gaston at 10–20 times greater than those allowed by the Safe Water Drinking Act. It could take from two months to two years to flush radioactive contaminants out of the water.7

There are potential impacts to other watersheds in Virginia, if mining is pursued statewide. In the 1970s and 80s, prior to the imposition of the ban, the industry obtained more than 1,200 exploratory leases affecting three watersheds: the Roanoke River; the Occoquan River; and the Rappahannock River. Although these leases have expired, they provide an indication of where exploration would resume if Virginia’s ban is repealed.

A Threat to our Economy:
Southside Virginia has a growing economy, thanks in part to revivals in agriculture, tourism, and fishing. If the ban is lifted, Virginia would risk harming these valuable industries. A socioeconomic study sponsored by the Coal and Energy

Commission found that in the best-case scenario— if the price of uranium stayed high and there were no adverse impacts—a mine might provide a $6 billion net benefit

to the state. But in the worst-case scenario, the industry would cost Virginia a net $11 billion loss. As the authors of the report explained, “the adverse economic impact
under the worst-case scenario is nearly twice as great as the corresponding positive impact in our best-case scenario.”

8 The report’s baseline analysis also assumed a price of $60 per pound for yellowcake throughout the life of the mine. As of November 5, 2012, the spot price for uranium was $42.50.

The General Assembly should heed the findings of the National Academy of Sciences and maintain the moratorium on uranium mining and milling that has for 30 years protected the lives, livelihoods, and property of Virginians.

The National Academy of Sciences Confirms Evidence of Risk:

In 2008, after the industry proposed plans to mine uranium and dispose of the radioactive waste in-state, the Coal and Energy Commission contracted with the pre-eminent authority, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), to conduct a rigorous, unbiased analysis. Following release of its report on December 19, 2011, the National Academy of Sciences conducted public outreach sessions to in Danville, Fairfax, Charlottesville, Richmond, and Virginia Beach, concluding on May 31, 2012. During past sessions of the General Assembly, many lawmakers said they would “wait for the study” before taking a stance on uranium mining. With the NAS report and public outreach complete, that wait is over.

The NAS report validates the core concerns of environmental groups and downstream localities Specifically, the NAS report finds:

“Significant potential environmental risks are associated with extreme natural events and failures in management practices. Extreme natural events (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall events, drought) have the potential to lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such an event, or fail to perform as designed.”

“In a hydrologically active environment such as Virginia, with relatively frequent tropical and convective storms producing intense rainfall, it is questionable whether currently-
engineered tailings repositories could be expected to prevent erosion and surface groundwater contamination for 1000 years”9
“The decay products of uranium provide a constant source of radiation in uranium tailings for thousands of years, substantially outlasting the current U.S. regulations foroversight of processing facility tailings.”

In presenting the report to the Virginia General Assembly on December 19, 2011, Dr. Paul Locke, Chair of the NAS Committee and a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, stated, “Internationally accepted best practices … are available

Available to mitigate some of the risks involved.

However, there are still many unknowns … The report did not say you can mitigate all risks … It said you can mitigate some risks.”10
Gov. McDonnell’s Uranium Working Group:
Although Governor McDonnell has assembled his own Uranium Working Group, the process for that group has been controversial, with limited opportunities for stakeholders to weigh in. The researchers retained by the governor’s group have very close ties to the uranium mining industry and pro-mining interests.

The final report of the governor’s group will not be independently peer-reviewed.

In contrast to the Uranium Working Group, the NAS unquestionably represents
the “gold standard.”

The NAS process was transparent, and their report peer-reviewed.

In fact, in 2011 Walter Coles, Sr., President and CEO of Virginia Uranium,Inc., wrote: “The NAS will release the findings of its study in December … We should all have full faith and confidence in the Academy to deliver an independent, scientifically based assessment, and we all should fully commit to abiding by its findings.”11

1. The ban was codified in 1982, and can be found at Virginia Code § 45.1-283
2. Walter Coles, Jr., Virginia Energy Resources, Inc., “Building North America’s Uranium
Supply,” Americas’ Resources Investment Congress, London, U.K., Feb. 1,
2011, transcript on file with Southern Environmental Law Center
3. Virginia Energy Resources, Corporate Presentation, at www.santoy.ca/i/pdf/


4  Cameco Corp., “McArthur River: Summary,” at www.cameco.com/mining/

5. National Academy of Sciences,

Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific Technical,

Environmental, Human Health and Safety, and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium
Mining and Processing in Virginia,

2012, at www.nap.edu/catalog.php?

6. www.vbgov.com/government/departments/public-utilities/about-pu/lakegaston/
7. Baker,

Phase II Assessment Potential Impacts of Uranium Mining in Virginia on

Drinking Water Sources,

Feb., 2012, www.vbgov.com/government/departments/

8. Chmura Economics and Analytics,

The Socioeconomic Impact of Uranium Mining

and Milling in the Chatham Labor Shed, Virginia,

Nov., 2011, http://dls.virginia.gov/

9. 1000 years is the maximum levels required by Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Regulations, 10 CFR Part 40
10. Rex Springston,

Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Report sees potential problems

with uranium mining,” Dec. 20, 2011
11. Walter Coles, Sr., “No End-Run Around The Study,”

Danville Register & Bee,

March 28, 2011

Healthy Rivers

The General Assembly should heed the
findings of the National Academy of Sciences and maintain the

moratorium on uranium mining and milling that has for 30 years protected the lives, livelihoods, and
property of Virginians.

Learn more


Learn more at vcnva.org