Uranium mining debate heats up as political season winds down

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Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County is the site of one of the world's largest uranium deposits. Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County is the site of one of the world's largest uranium deposits.

In the runup to Election Day, the debate over whether to lift a 30-year-old ban on uranium mining and milling in Virginia became more politically charged than ever, with both candidates in the 5th District Congressional race accusing each other of misleading voters about their ties to the industry. But Hurt’s reelection won’t mark the end of the debate over the ban, as the issue is expected to come up during Virginia’s next legislative session in the coming year.

Democratic challenger General John Douglass made the mining moratorium a campaign issue, establishing himself as a firm opponent to lifting the ban and painting Hurt as a politician in the pocket of Virginia Uranium, the company that holds the Pittsylvania County land where one of the world’s largest uranium deposits is located—upwards of 120 million pounds. Hurt’s father, Henry Hurt Jr., is a Virginia Uranium investor, and the younger Hurt has received donations from dad and from Virginia Uranium executives—at least $2,750, according to reports.

Hurt denied he has a personal financial stake in potential mining operations and reiterated his intent to keep the ban in place. Last month, he turned the tables on Douglass when it was revealed that the Democrat received $4,250 from Maryland-based USEC, Inc., a uranium enrichment company that could stand to profit handsomely from the development of Virginia mines.

Douglass said the money came from old Navy colleagues, that he wasn’t aware of their affiliation, and that he’ll donate the entire sum and then some to anti-mining groups. But Hurt’s continued to make hay with the news, even as Douglass has renewed his commitment to blocking an end to the ban.

An independent study commissioned by the state and conducted by the National Academy of Sciences last year was supposed to strip the discussion of politics. The study report, released in May, identifies potential risks associated with uranium mines, but doesn’t settle the debate.

Cale Jaffe, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes uranium mining in the state, said the problem lies in the byproducts. Virginia’s uranium is locked away in rock, and in order to produce enrichment-ready yellowcake, that rock has to be ground down. That leaves behind radioactive tailings, “which we have to worry about in perpetuity,” said Jaffe.

Typically, the tailings are sealed away in special landfills. But opponents say existing mines are all in arid locations, and Virginia’s wetter climate and proximity to the hurricane-prone Atlantic make it harder to ensure radioactive runoff won’t end up in our groundwater.

The fact that the report confirms those risks, said Jaffe, should be enough to give legislators pause. “From our perspective, the best you can say about this is it’s an extremely high-stakes gamble.”

Corby Anderson takes issue with that reading. The Colorado materials engineer served on the NAS study panel, and said some have put too much emphasis on the risks the report names.

“One thing people fail to understand here is that a risk is not a hazard,” Anderson said. It frustrates his practical engineer’s logic that people brush aside dangers associated with other resources. “Nobody says, ‘Somebody’s house blew up because of natural gas, so we should ban natural gas because it’s dangerous,’” he said. “People need it, and they know there’s a utilitarian purpose.” Same goes for nuclear fuel, he said.

Anderson pointed out that he doesn’t have a dog in this fight—he doesn’t live or work in Virginia—but his argument is echoed by many in the industry and on the right, who also underscore the powerful economic impact a multi-billion-dollar uranium industry could have on the state.

The political debate may cool post-election, but it’s likely to heat up again soon, as the state legislature is expected take up the question of whether to end the ban when it convenes in January.

And lest you think it’s an issue for Southside Virginia alone, Jaffe pointed out that Pittsylvania County isn’t the only potential mining site. “Back in the ’70s when the industry was first looking in Virginia, they sought exploratory leases in Orange County, just north of Charlottesville,” he said. If the ban is lifted, “there’s certainly the possibility that the industry would come back to Orange.”

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