Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Conflict of Interest [re: study funding]

Caswell Messenger

I think it's a bit disingenuous for Dr. Karmis, the Director of the Virginia Center for Coal & Energy Research at Virginia Tech and a professor in its Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering to say Tech's nuclear engineering program has "nothing to do with Coles Hill."

Professors and graduate students of Virginia Tech's Departments of Geosciences and Hydrogeosciences have already been on-site at Coles Hill performing various studies and tests on the unmined uranium ore body. According to Dr. Robert J. Bodnar, a professor with Tech's Geosciences Department: "All of these studies are telling us something about the subsurface - the rocks, when the rock type changes, where the major faults are. All those pieces of information are critical to understanding the ore deposit as it exists today, and that will be very useful information as the company [VUI] starts to develop the deposit in the future." ("Beneath the Surface, Virginia Tech conducts research at Coles Hill" by T. Davis, Star-Tribune, Sept. 10, 2008. Online source: www.virginiauranium.com/pdf/Beneath_the_Surface.pdf )

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.

Dr. Karmis is also well aware of the ongoing "nuclear renaissance" where the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear power production, is being promoted by nuclear power companies like Areva to have more nuclear power plants built. This, according to nuclear power proponents, is to offset the country's growing energy needs and dependence on fossil fuels. Areva, Dominion Power and Oakridge National Laboratories are working with southeastern universities like Virginia Tech to help meet the goal of training more nuclear engineers to run the planned nuclear power plants.

Let's not forget a "nuclear renaissance" would also benefit VUI in creating the need for more uranium. Increasing the "need" will raise the price of uranium and make it profitable to mine the ore body at Coles Hill.

Finally, Dr. Karmis' statement that nuclear engineers "don't care where uranium comes from" may be true, but Tech's having a domestic supply of uranium ore in its back yard, would complement its nuclear engineering program in no small measure. The waste management aspect (tailings, holding ponds and long-term storage, e.g., Superfund planning), I suspect, would turn up in Virginia Tech's curriculum.

As much as I admire Virginia Tech, for it is a fine institution of learning, I see a clear conflict of interest in its "implementing" the money VUI will pay to the NAS to perform a "research study."

Anne Cockrell
Danville, Virginia


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