Study: ‘Steep hurdles’ for uranium mining in Virginia

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There are “steep hurdles to be mounted” for Virginia to safely mine uranium, according to a much-anticipated two-year study on the process, released Monday by the National Academy of Sciences.

“Internationally accepted best practices, which include timely and meaningful public participation, are available to mitigate some of the risks involved. However, there are still many unknowns,” said Paul Locke, chairman of the committee that wrote the report and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore.

The state requested the study, paid for by Virginia Tech with funds from Virginia Uranium Inc. The company wants to tap a 119-pound deposit at the Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County.

The radioactive ore would be processed, then used to fuel nuclear power reactors.

The company says the process can be done safely, but environmental groups are concerned about the potential environmental impacts mining might have on surrounding areas, including contamination of the state’s drinking water.

The committee was not asked whether mining should be allowed or whether the effort should be pursued. If the ban is lifted, mining and processing likely would not begin for five to eight years after the initial granting of a license, the report states.

Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, said the study provides a “clear road map and path forward for operating the safest uranium mine in Virginia.”

“The NAS study states time and again that best practices now widely adopted by the industry have been effective at protecting water and air quality and overall public health,” he said.

But Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, said the group expects Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly to keep the ban in place because the study does not demonstrate “beyond a reasonable doubt” that mining in Virginia would pose absolutely no threat to public safety and health.”

Many lawmakers had said they were reserving judgment on whether they would favor lifting the ban until they had a chance to closely review the study. With less than a month to go before the General Assembly convenes, it leaves them little time to study the nearly-300-page report.

“I look forward to some reading over the Christmas holidays,” said Sen. John Watkins, Powhatan Republican.

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