Monday, January 14, 2013

Uranium Mining in Virginia a Threat to Our Water Resources

Last week the winter session of the Virginia General Assembly was called to order. Scheduled to be decided this winter is whether or not to lift a 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining within the state. Senator John Watkins has introduced a proposal to require the state to draft uranium-mining regulations, essentially ending the 30 year moratorium on Uranium mining in the Commonwealth. Senator Watkins, from Powhatan and Senator Richard Saslaw, from Fairfax will carry the legislation in the Senate, and Delegate Jackson Miller, from Manassas, will introduce similar legislation in the House of Delegates. Now is the time to make your voice heard.

In 1978 a particularly rich deposit of Uranium was discovered at Cole's Hill in Pittsylvania County in south central Virginia. This was followed by a flurry of exploration for uranium deposits in Virginia. In 1982 the Commonwealth placed a moratorium on uranium mining. In recent years, as the price of uranium reached $140 around 2007, and two families living in the vicinity of Cole's Hill formed a company called Virginia Uranium, Inc. to begin exploring the uranium deposit once again. Though the uranium spot price has fallen to around $40, that is still more than twice the historical price, and Virginia Uranium and their supporters have called for the Virginia legislature to lift the uranium mining moratorium for now just on Cole's Hill. As this was all percolating in state politics, in 2009 the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission requested that the National Research Council convene an independent committee of experts to review all the literature and develop a report to identify the scientific, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of mining and processing Virginia’s uranium resources. In addition, Fairfax Water commissioned a white paper on uranium mining and ended up with the Fairfax County Water Authority opposing uranium mining in Virginia and supporting the continuation of the moratorium on uranium mining in the Commonwealth.  

After reviewing these reports and as a voting member of the Potomac Watershed Roundtable I voted with the majority to maintain the moratorium on uranium mining. The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts with which I am also affiliated (through my volunteer work at the PWSWCD) also supports maintaining the moratorium. The Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Farm Bureau, the Fauquier Water Authority, and local governments from Halifax and Virginia Beach, oppose lifting the ban. Last week Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who serves as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate if the vote falls to party lines (Sen Watkins is a Republican and Senator Saslaw is a Democrat so that does not seem likely), announced that he supports maintaining the moratorium on uranium mining. Let me tell you why I do not want to see the moratorium lifted at this time.
From the Fairfax Water White Paper

Geological exploration has identified more than 55 locations within the Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions of Virginia where uranium is found.  Uranium occurs in the Lovingston rock formation at a fraction of a percent.  In order for a uranium occurrence to be considered a commercially exploitable source of uranium ore, it must be of sufficient size, be at least 0.1% uranium to the other rock components in the deposit and be able to be mined and processed with current technology. So far only the uranium deposits at Cole Hill have been proven to meet these requirements. Even the “rich deposits” at Cole hill will produce 1,000 pounds of waste called tailing for every pound of uranium extracted. The waste, the mine tailings, is the problem.

There are several methods to mine and process uranium. The choice of mining method depends on the quality and quantity of the ore, the shape and depth of the ore deposit, the type of rock, and a wide range of site-specific environmental conditions. Because of the geology in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it is likely that only open pit or underground mining would be viable. While there are risks inherent in mining to worker the uranium miners would also face the additional risk of dust containing radiation.

After the millions of pounds of rock are removed from the ground by conventional mining methods, the uranium must be separated from the rock and minerals and other radioactive materials, impurities removed and yellowcake produced. Yellowcake is a concentrated form of uranium oxide made in a combination of crushing and/or grinding the rock and chemical processes to dissolve the uranium from the rest of the rock using acids or bases to leach the uranium from the rock dust. The yellowcake then needs to be separated, dried, and packaged. There is more than one type of processing and the choice depends on the nature of the uranium ore, the composition of the rock in the formation as well as environmental, safety, and economic factors. During uranium ore processing, several waste products are created, including tailings, leached residue and waste water. Tailings consist of everything that was in the ore except the extracted uranium. Tailings from uranium mining and processing operations contain radioactive materials remaining from the radioactive decay of uranium, such as thorium and radium as well as heavy metals also present in the rock. The real risks to Virginia are the risks of contamination to our water resources from the waste water and tailings. Uranium tailings are a source of radioactive contamination for thousands of years, and therefore must be controlled and stored carefully away from water which will erode and carry the radioactive materials into the ground and surface water.

Over the past few decades, improvements have been made to tailings management systems to isolate tailings from the environment. The long term effectiveness of these management systems has not been tested and uranium mining is typically carried out in arid environments. Virginia is subject to relatively frequent storms that produce intense rainfall. Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants into the waters of Virginia. It is questionable whether modern-engineered tailings containment could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years. In Coles Hill alone the tailings waste will amount to over 118,888,000,000 pounds of pulverized rock with radioactive materials that can slowly leach into our groundwater through failure to prevent percolation of precipitation into the tailings containment or through accidents be released from impoundments to surface waters. Though Virginia’s rainfall averages 42 inches a year in past few years alone rainfall has varied from under 30 inches to a high of 82 inches of rain a year. Water is a great solvent and in Virginia it would seem impossible to keep such vast quantities of tailings permanently isolated from water.  

The only use for uranium is for weapons and nuclear powered reactors. The United States currently has 104 nuclear reactors in operation supplying about 20% of U.S. electricity, and in 2011 these reactors required 20,256 short tons of concentrated enriched uranium and this is not expected to change significantly in the future. In 2010, the United States imported 92 % of the uranium that it needed to fuel its nuclear power reactors. There appears to be adequate world supply for our limited number of nuclear power plants at this time. Uranium mining and processing represents unique risks to source water supplies from toxic and radioactive byproducts. The half-life of the uranium 238 and its isotopes is thousands of years. A containment failure will risk the groundwater and surface water supply of the Commonwealth, and for Cole's Hill will endanger the drinking water supply of Virginia Beach if there is a breach in containment. With current technology, the risk is too great.  The uranium will still be there when our knowledge of how to stabilize for hundreds of year the mine tailings increases to the point we can safely mine the uranium without endangering our water resources.
The formation the contains uranium in Virginia from Fairfax Water

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