In the 1980s, uranium leases were filed on thousands of acres of land in Virginia including Fauquier, Orange, Culpeper, and Madison Counties, stretching along the Piedmont to Pittsylvania in Southside Virginia. At that time, the Commonwealth undertook an extensive study of uranium mining. It was costly, time consuming, and divisive. When it was over, the General Assembly and Governor decided it was in the best interests of the people to maintain a moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia.
A new corporation, Virginia Uranium, Inc., is seeking to lift the moratorium. Although the primary focus on the uranium debate has been on the Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania County, most of Virginia’s population would be impacted by uranium mining, especially areas downstream or downwind of mining sites.
There are three forms of uranium mining: open pit mining, deep mining; and in situ leaching. Open pit mining creates large holes dug into the ground to remove the ore and waste rock which impedes ore extraction. This method is frequently used when the desirable ore is close to the surface. The mining operation planned in Pittsylvania County in the 1980s would have been a 110-acre hole, 850 feet deep. Deep mining creates shafts dug into the ground to reach ore at deeper levels. In the last decade, in situ leaching has become more widely used. In situ leaching uses a solution that is injected into underground uranium deposits to extract the uranium from the other minerals. The liquid, now pregnant with uranium, is pumped to the surface where the uranium is taken out of the solution. This process is repeated until all of the uranium is extracted. Information available to PEC indicates that pit mining most likely will be used in Pittsylvania with the possibility of some deep mining, as well.
Uranium milling involves extracting uranium from mined ore. The ore is crushed into sand size particles and the uranium is leached out. The uranium then is precipitated out of the leaching solution and dewatered, dried, and packaged. Through the extraction process, uranium is concentrated into a product referred to as “yellowcake.” In situ leaching is a combined mining and milling operation.
Enormous quantities of radioactive waste are generated by uranium mining and milling, with only 2 to 4 pounds of concentrated uranium oxide yellowcake obtained from each ton of ore taken out of the ground. The resulting waste, or tailings, contain 85% of the original radioactivity and remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Tailings can contain several hazardous substances, including radium (which decays to produce radon) selenium, molybdenum, uranium, and thorium. The mill tailings and the mill tailings effluent are highly radioactive and acutely hazardous. The Congressional testimony of Dr. Doug Brugge, of the Tufts School of Medicine, described uranium ore “as a toxic brew of numerous hazardous materials.” For the full transcript of Dr. Brugge’s testimony, go here.
According to EPA’s Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM) document, most tailings piles are located in arid areas of the western U.S where low precipitation decreases the potential for water contamination.
Still, even out West, there are problems with water management around uranium mines. Because uranium is highly soluble, surface and ground water are the most significant means of dispersal of uranium and technically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials from mines and mine wastes. Water coming into contact with these wastes must therefore be treated or contained – millions of gallons of water for thousands of years. Read more about water management in the TENORM document, above.
Radioactive Properties of Key UraniumIsotopes, U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory, EVS, August 2005.
The National Research Council is involved in a study to examine the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining, milling, and processing as they relate to Virginia. The purpose of this study is to assist the Commonwealth in determining whether uranium mining, milling, and processing can be undertaken in a manner that safeguards the environment, natural and historic resources, agricultural lands, and the health and well-being of its citizens.
The study results are not due out until December 2011. Yet, Virginia Uranium, the company that was the main proponent of the study, has announced that it is already preparing legislation to lift the uranium ban during the next session of the General Assembly.
This suggests that the study is only a pretext for Virginia Uranium. Virginia Uranium, their lobbyists and their friends in the General Assembly appear ready to move forward, no matter the cost to Virginia’s health and environment.