Uranium Mining Would Be an Environmentally Friendly Boon for Virginia and the Nation

Published November 14, 2012

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama did not agree on much during the presidential debates. One thing on which they did agree, however, is the need for the United States itself to produce more of the energy we use. Unfortunately, environmental activists protest every new energy project proposed anywhere in the nation. They protest oil and natural gas production off the Virginia shore. They protest coal production in the western part of the state. Now they protest uranium production in southern Virginia. Activists protest energy production beyond the state’s borders, everywhere from Florida to Alaska, from Maine to California. They will pick up local nuances in their argument, but it is the same old strategy: NIMBY (not in my backyard). While we all agree the United States should produce more of the energy we use, the same radical activists work to shut down any actual energy production. While working to shut down energy production, environmental activists disingenuously argue in Chatham and elsewhere that they don’t oppose energy production in general. Not too long ago, they touted natural gas as a clean-burning fuel to shut down coal mining. Now, they are working to ban fracking as a means to restrict the use of natural gas. The environmentalists support wind and solar energy, but they work to ban zinc, copper, and other mined metals needed to build solar panels and wind turbines. They simply show up in each individual community and say there are special mitigating circumstances in this particular place that make energy production particularly undesirable. The cumulative result is energy production is blocked nearly everywhere, while Republican and Democratic leaders alike point out the nation is suffering from our paltry domestic energy production. One particularly glaring example of America needlessly failing to take advantage of its natural resources is the uranium that fuels our nuclear power plants. The United States currently imports 90 percent of the uranium we use, in spite of our abundant uranium reserves. Under an agreement with the former Soviet Union, we imported 25 percent of our uranium with the purpose of dismantling old nuclear missiles. That program is expiring and under a new agreement, purchasers of uranium will buy mined uranium from a Russian government-owned company. Disarmament is no longer the ultimate purpose for importing uranium for our 104 nuclear power plants. The nation’s largest untapped uranium deposit, the 14th largest in the world, sits untouched near the rural southern Virginia town of Chatham, even though the owner of the land that contains the uranium wants to mine the valuable resource. A statewide moratorium on uranium mining stands in the way. Virginia public officials are considering lifting the ban. For the good of the nation, the state, and the Chatham region, Virginia officials should lift the moratorium. The Chatham uranium deposit is so lucrative that mining it would increase domestic uranium production by more than 50 percent. By itself, the Chatham uranium deposit would go a long way toward making our nation energy self-sufficient. This is exactly what Republican and Democratic leaders alike say we need to do to make our nation economically strong and secure. The people in and around Chatham would justly reap the greatest economic benefits from uranium production. A state-commissioned study found uranium mining would create $5 billion in economic activity and support 1,000 jobs. Most of that would occur in the Chatham region and benefit current residents. The average job in Pittsylvania County today commands a salary near $39,000 per year. An employee at Coles Hill would make an average salary of $65,000 per year. Why should anyone deny this community the opportunity to improve the quality of life for its residents? Uranium is mined safely in Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and other states. It is mined safely in Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Russia. If Kazakhstan is capable of safely mining uranium, Virginia surely is, too. A multitude of federal and state agencies would oversee uranium mining in Virginia and make sure it is safe for human health and the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are just a few of the federal agencies that would oversee and regulate any mining activities. Virginia health and environment agencies would provide additional monitoring, oversight, and regulation. Uranium mining is a safe and economical way to boost our domestic energy production. Virginia officials should act in the best interests of the nation, state, and southern Virginia region and lift the uranium production moratorium. James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is senior fellow for environment policy at The Heartland Institute.