Friday, September 4, 2009

National Academy of Sciences responds to uranium criticism

By John Crane

Published: September 3, 2009

A spokeswoman for the National Academy of Sciences responded Thursday to criticism from uranium-mining opponents that the academy is pro-nuclear.

Mining foes also say that a study performed by the NAS and paid for by Virginia Uranium Inc. would tilt in favor of uranium-mining.

The NAS has not received a formal request to conduct a study to determine whether uranium can be mined and milled safely in the commonwealth, said Jennifer Walsh, spokeswoman for the NAS.

But Walsh said the academy has performed unbiased, federal-level studies in the past involving the tobacco and cell-phone industries. When an industry pays for a study, the NAS usually works with a third organization that provides funding on behalf of a company or industry, she said.

"We would not work directly with them (VUI)," Walsh said Thursday. "We would only go to them with questions and concerns. They would have no say-so in the study."

VUI seeks to mine and mill a 119-million pound uranium ore deposit at Coles Hill, about six miles northeast of Chat-ham.

Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-1st District and chairman of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, said Wednesday VUI will pay for the state study to determine whether uranium can be mined and milled safely in the state. Kilgore said he will send a letter to the NAS to let offi-cials there know VUI will fund the study. So far, VUI is the sole entity that has expressed interest in paying for the study.

Virginia Tech's Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research will imple me nt funding and will contract with the NAS for the study.

Attempts to contact Michael Karmis, head of the VCCER, were unsuccessful Thursday.

The study's first portion, which will examine the technical and public-safety aspects of mining and milling, will cost between $1.2-$1.4 million, Kilgore said. The study's first phase should begin by the end of the year.

Mining opponents say a study paid for with VUI money will not be objective.

Walsh said an executive committee of the NAS governing board would review a study proposal, its budget and work plan — a process that could take weeks or months. If a study is approved, staff from the NAS and the National Research Council would assemble a committee of scientific experts who will hold information-gathering meetings on the study. The meetings are open to the public and posted on the NAS Web site ahead of time at http://www.national -academies. org.

Members of the public can follow the progress of the academy's studies by going to the Web site and clicking on the "current projects" link. To learn more about the NAS study process, go to the "National Academies study process" link.

The study's second part would focus on mining's socio-economic impact, including effects on real-estate values and businesses. The VCEC will seek another institution, such as George Mason University or James Madison University , to perform the second portion of the study. Kilgore said he is looking at foundations to pay for the second phase, which would not be funded by VUI. The study's second portion would probably begin in early 2010.

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