Uranium and mining industry lobbying to lift a twenty-five year ban on uranium mining persuaded Clean Water Action and allies to mount a counter-effort that will last at least through the 2009 election year, and likely into the 2010 legislative session. CWA involvement stepped up following a Virginia state panel vote for a uranium study after a House of Delegates panel had killed a similar proposal during the 2008 session. The renewed prospect of uranium mining was initially generated by Virginia Energy Plan 2007, a plan on meeting future energy needs developed by the administration of Governor Tim Kaine under a General Assembly mandate.
The Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy voted 12-0 in November, 2008 to move forward on a wide-ranging study on the potential impact of uranium mining in Virginia. Earlier that year, in February, the Virginia Senate passed a proposal to create a 17-member commission to oversee a two-year National Academy of Sciences study of whether uranium could be safely mined on 200 acres in south-central Virginia. After uranium was discovered in an area of Pittsylvania County used for cattle, hay and timber, a proposal to mine the large deposit near Chatham in the early 1980s generated controversy that led to the existing ban, in effect since 1982. Opponents were concerned at the time, and remain so, that radioactive milling waste, a result of processing, would pollute the environment.
Under the Senate proposal, Virginia Uranium, the company most active in attempting to lift the ban, would have picked up the cost of the report, which had been estimated at $1 million or more. Virginia Uranium was clearly betting that the study would somehow imply that the mining could be done "safely", and that the company could use it as the basis for a push to lift the ban.
Following the Senate action, after more than an hour of debate, the House Rules Committee on March 3, 2008 voted down the proposal over concerns about land, air and drinking water contamination. The vote eliminated any chance that the controversial bill could pass during the 2008 session, and provoked the uranium and mining industry to seek a study commissioned by the Virginia Commission on Coal and Energy, which was not subject to legislative approval. These efforts are widely viewed as initial steps towards lifting a ban on uranium mining in Virginia, and a member of the House of Delegates leadership indicated that a review of the ban during the 2009 session was likely. CWA members, staff and allies generated pressure to keep the ban in place, and no action to lift the ban was taken during the short legislative session in Richmond.
With energy in national headlines, and a renewed push for expansion of nuclear power by the industry, Clean Water Action members will be working to remind candidates for office in 2009 that:
- Uranium has never been mined on the east coast. It is mined in less-populated drier states such as Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska.
- Release of radioactive materials from uranium mining could contaminate local waters and the surrounding area, causing cancer and other ill effects in animal and plant life in the region, and downstream all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.
- Efforts to place radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada have been largely shelved by the Obama Administration, and there is still no long-term solution for the safe storage of radioactive waste.
- The events of 2001 have renewed concerns that not only the risk of accidents, such as the 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, but also of intentional actions by terrorists make nuclear power an unacceptably unsafe way to meet energy needs.
- Costs and the length of time to expand nuclear make it an ineffective approach for addressing the immediate crisis of climate change.
- Private capital has been unwilling to risk investment in nuclear, requiring billions of dollars in loan guarantees by the federal government to underwrite the nuclear industry. Such commitments undermine efforts to invest in safer and more cost-effective energy production methods.
What you can do
Write a short letter to the Governor and your state representatives to oppose any attempts to lift the ban on uranium mining in Virginia.