Experts debate the controversy over uranium mining in Virginia 



As part of the Batten School’s Energy Policy Forum, SELC’s Cale Jaffe (right) and Virginia Uranium Inc.’s Patrick Wales (left) debated the necessity and safety of mining for uranium in Virginia, fielding questions from students of law, leadership and public policy, and environmental science. (Katharine E. Myer)  

The debate over uranium mining in Virginia came to UVA last week, as Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Cale Jaffe joined Virginia Uranium Inc. project manager Patrick Wales as part of the Batten School’s Energy Policy Forum.

For two hours on Friday, Jaffe and Wales tackled the thorny issue of mining uranium in southern Virginia, and fielded questions from students, faculty, and members of the community.

According to Uranium Virginia, Coles Hill farm in Pittsylvania County is home to the largest uranium deposit in the U.S., and one of the largest in the world. It was discovered in 1978, but has remained untouched due to a 30-year statewide ban on uranium mining. The SELC is at the forefront of the effort to keep the ban in tact and is one of 16 groups in the statewide Keep the Ban Coalition, but Virginia Uranium announced in 2007 it plans to exploit the deposit.

Wales explained during the debate that the process of extracting uranium from rock is a fairly simple one, and it is merely the “separation of one natural ingredient from granite rock.”

In a written response to Governor McDonnell’s announcement regarding the ban, Wales said “uranium mining can be conducted safely in Virginia as long as stringent regulatory standards and industry best practices are put in place.”

But the SELC is concerned about the safety of the process, regardless of any regulatory standards or industry best practices—consider, Jaffe said, that the BP oil spill happened two years ago this month, despite stringent regulations on Gulf drilling.

Jaffe said the controversy over uranium is about waste management. In addition to the actual mining, he said, the process would also require milling, with the disposal of 58 billion pounds of toxic, radioactive tailings each year. 

According to Jaffe, these tailings retain 85 percent of their radioactive activity, and global studies have shown that those living and working near uranium mines are at risk for cancer, birth defects, weakened immune systems, and kidney and liver damage.

“We need to take these warning signs very seriously before we move forward,” he said. 

Wales said Uranium Virginia has “top notch” state regulators, who ensure the prevention of environmental disasters, and their regulations have been rated as 99.9 percent effective. 

Despite these statistics, Jaffe said the SELC fears that, right now, the risks are just too great to move the project forward. Because Virginia has not yet been mined for uranium, Jaffe said, there is no way of knowing how the area’s climate, rainfall and natural disasters will factor into the equation. Uranium is traditionally mined in dryer areas like the western states, and Jaffe fears that, even with “gold standard” regulations, mining in Virginia will present unexpected complications unseen in other uranium deposits.

“Risk is inherent and will always be there,” Jaffe said.

Wales argued that not utilizing the uranium deposits in the U.S. puts the nation at a greater risk: the risk of being too dependent on foreign countries for natural energy resources. 

“There is no material, from an energy perspective, that we are more dependent on foreign producers [for] than uranium,” he said, noting that the US imports 92 percent of the uranium used to power nuclear reactors.

Uranium is essential in the U.S., he said, because aside from natural gas and coal, there is “no other option for cheap, reliable, and safe electricity.”

“Do we need this stuff?” asked Wales. “The answer is absolutely yes.”