Tuesday, December 20, 2011

National Academy of Sciences Report on Virginia Uranium

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Academy of Engineering have completed a 22-month review of the proposed Virginia Uranium proposal to mine element in that state.  The 302-page report says uranium could be mined, but the company would have to protect workers, the public and the environment in Virginia. The report said that “steep hurdles” need to be surmounted before Virginia’s longtime ban on uranium mining could be lifted.

Virginia has a decades old ban on uranium mining and many in Richmond expected the study to provide conclusions supportive of lawmakers seeking to lift the ban.  Instead struck more of a cautionary tone.

The state’s Coal and Energy Commission, which ordered the study, will review the findings and recommend to the General Assembly in the next few weeks whether Virginia should lift the ban. The study did not recommend whether the site should be mined. Critics argue that the study is tainted because the company, Virginia Uranium, paid the $1.42 million cost for the report.  This sort of arrangement is not unusual for such reports and is often the case in the preparation of environmental impact statements.

It is being reported that Virginia Uranium has aggressively lobbied lawmakersand has spoken to 100 of 140 legislators and flew more than a dozen of them to France and Canada to visit uranium mines. It is also being reported that Virginia Uranium has donated more than $150,000 to candidates in Virginia and retained five of Richmond’s most influential lobbying and public relations firms.

The 20-member Coal and Energy Commission asked the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 to conduct the study, despite objections from the General Assembly. Several studies have been released.

Thirty-two governmental organizations in Virginia and North Carolina have passed resolutions to keep the ban.

Uranium would be mined underground. (Wash Post, 12/20/2011)

The NAS Report

"Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific, Technical, Environmental, Human Health and Safety, and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium Mining and Processing in Virginia (2011)"

Report in Brief

A range of health and environmental issues and related risks are important considerations as Virginia deliberates on whether to rescind its almost 30-year moratorium on mining uranium. Although there are internationally accepted best practices to mitigate most of these risks, there are still steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and processing could take place within a regulatory setting that appropriately protects workers, the public, and the environment.

Key Findings

• Of the sites in Virginia explored so far, only the Coles Hill uranium deposit appears to have the potential to be economically viable. Extensive site-specific tests would be required to determine the most appropriate mining and processing methods for each uranium deposit. Geological exploration carried out to date indicates that underground mining or open-pit mining are the probable methods of extraction for uranium deposits in Virginia.

• Protracted exposure of workers in uranium mining and processing facilities to radon decay products generally would be expected to represent the greatest radiation-related health risk. Exposure to radon is associated with lung cancer, a link that has been most clearly established in uranium miners exposed to radon. Cigarette smoking increases the risk.

• Other potential health risks for mine workers apply to any type of hard rock mining or other large-scale industrial or construction activity. The inhalation of silica dust and diesel exhaust, to which miners in general can be exposed, increases the risk of lung cancer and silicosis.

• Off-site releases of radionuclides could present some risk of radiation exposure to the general public, depending on how the release occurred and the density of the nearby population.

• Uranium tailings, the solid or semi-solid waste left after processing, present potential sources of radioactive contamination for thousands of years. Modern tailings management facilities are designed to prevent the release of radioactive contaminants for at least 200 years, but longer-term monitoring results from modern tailings facilities are not yet available.

• Virginia is susceptible to extreme natural events, including heavy precipitation and earthquakes, and any uranium mining and/or processing facility would need to take the possibility of such events into consideration during planning.

• Three over-arching best practices should be guiding principles if uranium mining were to be permitted: the need to plan at the outset of the project for the complete life cycle of mining, processing, and reclamation; the need to engage and retain qualified experts familiar with internationally accepted best practices for all aspects of a project; and the need to encourage meaningful and timely public participation throughout the life cycle of a project, beginning at the earliest stages.

• At a more specific level, there are numerous internationally accepted best practices that would contribute to operational and regulatory planning for uranium mining in Virginia. These cover the health, environmental, and regulatory impacts of uranium mining.

Additional Studies:


Proposed Coles Hill Virginia Uranium Mine and Mill: An Assessment of Possible Socioeconomic Impacts, RTI International, December 2011.

Origin of Uranium Mineralization at Coles Hill Virginia (USA) and its Natural Attenuation within an Oxidizing Rock-Soil-Ground Water System, 2001. 

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