Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In Uranium Mining Study, Ensure Independence

Every aspect of a study on uranium mining is going to be radioactive, and that's particularly true for the money needed to fund the project.

The best option would be for the state to underwrite the $1 million-plus needed to guarantee a thorough analysis by the respected National Academy of Sciences. But a 119-million-pound deposit of uranium in Pittsylvania County was too hot for state legislators, who refused to fund a study determining whether it could be mined safely.

Virginia Uranium Inc., a firm established by two families whose properties contain the deposit, has offered to stroke a check, raising concerns that the study's outcome would be tainted by a less-than-objective sponsor.

Environmental and citizens groups that object to the project have been criticized because they won't contribute to the cause. That's a cynical ploy to discredit organizations with legitimate interests in the process.

Those groups aren't sitting on a pile of uranium ore with an estimated value of at least $7 billion. They have no financial stake in a mine, just a reasonable concern over its effect on public safety. And they certainly aren't the ones pressing the state to allow uranium mining after a 25-year ban.

The reality is there's only one stakeholder with the means and the motivation to make this study happen, and that's Virginia Uranium Inc. That should make state officials uncomfortable, but they can at least put safeguards in place to preserve some semblance of propriety.

The company should be required to turn over the full amount for the study up front, rather than parsing it out over the course of the research. There should be no potential for funds to dry up if preliminary results aren't to Virginia Uranium's liking.

The awkward financial arrangement demands a careful step-by-step analysis to ensure that public safety is paramount. If mining and milling of the ore pose a threat to local wells and nearby Lake Gaston, the primary source of drinking water for Virginia Beach, that danger should be identified and disclosed before researchers begin examining the mine's economic viability.

That doesn't mean economics should be ignored. Under current market conditions, the Pittsylvania deposit may be the only feasible site for a mine. If ore prices skyrocket, however, communities as far away as Fauquier County could become candidates for mining operations. If the state were to end its moratorium on uranium mining, the decision would affect the entire commonwealth, not just Pittsylvania, and the study must recognize that fact.

Questions about the financing and scope of the study are making for an uneasy start to what will be at least an 18-month process. The only way to soothe those anxieties is for state officials to make sure the analysis is thorough and transparent.


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