Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Virginia Tech rejects conflict of interest allegations in uranium study

The director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Coal and Energy Research says its role to administer funding for a uranium mining study poses no conflict of interest.

At least one mining opponent contends Virginia Tech stands to benefit from the excavation of uranium at Coles Hill by expanding its nuclear engineering program.

“… (Virginia) Tech’s having a domestic supply of uranium ore in its backyard would complement its nu-clear engineering program in no small measure,” said Anne Cockrell, a Danville resident and member of Southside Concerned Citizens, a group that opposes uranium mining, via e-mail Wednesday.

During an interview Wednesday, Michael Karmis, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Coal and Energy Research, called Cockrell’s allegations “a very silly argument.” The nuclear engineering program at the school has nothing to do with Coles Hill, Karmis said.

A lack of engineering capabilities in the work force to run nuclear power plants and nuclear programs at military bases is prompting schools like Virginia Tech to revive their engineering departments, Karmis said. Industries did not hire engineers in the 80s and 90s, leaving a generation gap among nuclear and other types of engineers, Karmis said. Nuclear engineering has become almost extinct and engineers about to retire need to be replaced, he said. In addition, demand for nuclear power is increasing, he said.

“That’s what the universities are responding to,” Karmis said.

Virginia Uranium Inc. seeks to mine and mill a 119-million-pound uranium ore deposit at Coles Hill, about six miles northeast of Chatham. Virginia currently has a moratorium on uranium mining. Delegate Terry Kilgore, head of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, sent a written request in August to the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to conduct the study. NRC officials say the proposed study is worth pursuing.

Mining supporters say an operation at Coles Hill would bring economic benefits to Southside and supply hundreds of jobs. Opponents believe the project would destroy the environment and threaten public health in Pittsylvania County.

Cockrell said the nuclear-power industry, including Areva, Dominion Power and Oakridge National Laboratories, is working with schools like Virginia Tech to help train more nuclear engineers to run planned nuclear-power plants. Also, Cockrell said professor and graduate students of Virginia Tech’s departments of geosciences and hydrogeosciences have conducted on-site studies and tests of unmined uranium at Coles Hill.

“Clearly Virginia Tech’s studies at Coles Hill are contributing to the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, the mining and milling of uranium,” Cockrell said in her e-mail.

William Kearney, a spokesman for the NRC, said the organization operates independently of sponsors, who have no role in the study’s results

“Nobody knows the outcome of the study which hasn’t even started,” Kearney said of opponents’ allega-tions. “The study still needs to be approved by our governing board.”

Kearney said the NRC’s governing board will likely discuss the study request at the board’s regular meeting this month or in November. In the meantime, NRC staff will prepare a prospectus, or study proposal, that will include a scope, timeline, likely costs and sponsorship, Kearney said. The board would review the prospectus before deciding whether to approve the request.

The study’s first portion would cost $1.2-$1.4 million. Virginia Tech’s Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research will handle the money and work with the NAS for the study. The second part of the study, dealing with the socioeconomic aspects of mining, still needs to be worked out by the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission. VUI will not fund the second part.

Katie Whitehead, a member of the Dan River Basin Association, said a detailed draft contract should be open to the public.

“A draft contract with details regarding such things as financial provisions, public hearings, interim reports, and release of information needed for the socioeconomic study should be made available for public comment,” Whitehead said in a statement. “For transparency, a meeting to explain the draft contract and take comments is essential.”

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