Uranium Mining in Virginia: Environmental and Safety Considerations

Published January 4, 2013

A new report written by one of the nation’s leading authorities on groundwater hydrology and nuclear energy says uranium mining in Virginia can take place safely and with minimal environmental impact.

At issue is a plan to lift a moratorium on uranium mining that has been in place in Virginia since 1982. The Coles Hill uranium deposit, located in Pittsylvania County, is one of the world’s most significant undeveloped deposits of uranium ore. The mine is projected to produce up to 120 million pounds of yellow cake over its economic life, enough to serve the needs of Virginia’s currently installed nuclear power plants for 75 years. When fully operational, the mine is expected to produce 2 million pounds of yellow cake per year.

“Virginians should not be concerned about adverse effects from allowing uranium mining in their state,” concludes scientist Jay Lehr, who holds a Ph.D. in groundwater hydrology from the University of Arizona and is editor of the Nuclear Energy Encyclopedia and the six-volume Water Encyclopedia.

“For more than three decades, modern uranium mining operations have taken place in other parts of the country and around the world without creating environmental or health problems,” he writes. “Based on the proven effective approach in Canada, Western U.S. , [and] Australia, … an extensive regulatory regime exists to protect miners, people living near the mine, and the general public from any emissions, radioactive or otherwise, that might come from the mine or the processing of its output.”

Key Conclusions:

  • Virginia can take advantage of its uranium resources in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.
  • Reclamation and decommissioning technologies for uranium mining and milling are highly effective and have proven successful at protecting watersheds and other natural resources.
  • Since the 1970s modern best practices and stringent regulation have successfully protected surface and groundwater systems near uranium operations.
  • International standards, robust national and state regulations, and substantial national and state regulatory experience will guide uranium mining and safety practices in Virginia.
  • The risk to the public of radiation exposure from uranium mining and milling activities is negligible and significantly lower than the radiation exposure from natural background sources. This means the risk of cancer or other adverse health impacts is negligible, or effectively zero.
  • Virginia’s regulatory agencies currently regulate 247 active coal mines and 455 nonfuel mineral mines throughout the state, where they manage many of the same public health, worker safety, and environmental risks posed by uranium mining including radon.
  • Concerns about the potential contamination of Hampton Roads’ drinking water supply at Lake Gaston are based on a misunderstanding of how mill tailings will be stored at Coles Hill. The Virginia Beach study relies on questionable models and assumptions and lacks a probability assessment of catastrophic circumstances.