Nowhere on this earth has uranium mining been done safely.
The entity with the most to gain is paying for the study; the state of Virginia hasn't ante'd up one dime.
VUI and Virginia Energy are contributing to every conceivable politician and cause to further their position that Coles Hill should be mined.
Big-name pols are advertising Virginia as being "nuclear friendly" and are touting VA's "nuclear renaissance".
The relationships between politicians, lobbyists, company officials, some Va Tech faculty, and investors are so intertwined that they would appear as a big spider web if reduced to a chart.
So why is expecting that the study will favor mining in Virginia such a leap as to be called "premature"?
© September 30, 2009
The respected National Research Council hasn't yet voted on whether to take on a study of uranium mining in Virginia, but the second-guessing has already started.
Some mining opponents in Pittsylvania County dismiss the results - which won't be available for nearly two years - because the study would be underwritten by Virginia Uranium Inc. The company stands to make billions if state officials allow it to tap the estimated 119 million pounds of ore in the county.
Residents are right to feel protective of their community. That's equally true of Virginia Beach leaders, who are concerned that mining could contaminate the city's water supply in Lake Gaston.
But no one has legitimately questioned the integrity of the NRC, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, or suggested a better alternative.
It would be preferable for the state to pay the $1.2 million to $1.4 million for the study, but that's not a realistic option this year. Gov. Tim Kaine recently announced budget cuts that will cost nearly 600 salaried state workers their jobs. Core public safety and mental health services face funding reductions.
The only way to determine whether uranium can be safely mined in Virginia's rainy climate is to allow Virginia Uranium to pay for that assessment. It's an uncomfortable arrangement but one that can work with appropriate safeguards.
The mining company should be required to pay the full amount for the study up front, eliminating any temptation to retract its support if preliminary findings aren't favorable. It should also disclose the source of its money, identifying the investors who are fronting the funds for the study. That's important because no scientists should be permitted to participate in the study if they are employed by a mining company with a financial interest in the project.
William Kearney, a spokesman for the National Academy of Sciences, noted that the organization has a strict conflict-of-interest policy for participating scientists. But state officials must be full partners in preserving the integrity of the study, and they should require VUI to publicly identify its investors before work begins.
The governing board of the NRC is expected to vote on the study proposal in October or November. If it agrees to the project, it will then begin contract negotiations with Virginia Tech's Center for Coal and Energy Research, chosen by state lawmakers to coordinate the study.
The details of that contract, particularly its financial provisions, must be made public. Further, state legislators should hold a meeting to explain the contract and take comments. They should ensure that the scope of the assessment includes an examination of claims by Pittsylvania residents that exploratory drilling at the site has contaminated local wells. Equally important, the state should guarantee that a separate study on the mine's economic impact does not begin until questions of safety are fully addressed.
Opponents who repudiate a study before it even exists risk marginalizing themselves before the real debate begins. But that doesn't negate the fact that many thousands of Virginians who have been less vocal still want and deserve an open, transparent process that puts their health and safety above all other interests.