In 1982, the Virginia General Assembly passed what amounts to an effective moratorium on uranium mining in the state, and that moratorium has remained in force for 29 years. Next year the General Assembly will consider a bill that would end the moratorium and allow Virginia Uranium to begin the permitting process to surface mine the uranium deposit at Coles Hill, in Pittsylvania County. The accompanying figure from the Piedmont Environmental Council, shows potential uranium resources in our area. The map is based on data published by the United States Geological Survey in 1998 which is a geochemical analysis of stream sediment and other solid samples. As the red markings on the map to the left suggest, Pittsylvania County isn’t the only place in Virginia where uranium deposits may exist. If the General Assembly lifts the moratorium, how long will it be before mining companies like Virginia Uranium want to explore the surface mining potential in Lovettsville or Hillsboro?
Virginia Uranium publishes the following exchange on their web site, under the heading “Myth and Fact”:
The Piedmont Environmental Council has circulated a map of Virginia entitled “Water supplies potentially impacted by uranium mining” that includes Fairfax, Town of Orange, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, as well as Halifax, Clarksville and Mecklenburg. – Piedmont Environmental Council website, February 21, 2011
These water supplies are not threatened by Coles Hill or any other uranium deposit. As state regulators have testified, Coles Hill is the only deposit in Virginia worth mining. “With the exception of Coles Hill, none of the occurrences identified to date are presently considered economic deposits due to low grade and/or limited extent.” – William L. Lassetter, Jr., Economic Geology Manager, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, Division of Geology and Mineral Resources.
Virginia Uranium does not deny that mining Coles Hill threatens the water supply in Pittsylvania County and the quote from William Lassetter does not address the impact of uranium mining on local water supply. In a phone call, Lassetter assured me he has no opinion on the impact of mining on water supply. Lassetter’s use of the word presently specifically does not preclude uranium mining anywhere else in the state. Oil from Canadian tar sands deposits was considered uneconomical until shortages developed and prices rose.
This limits consideration to uranium deposits classified as Reasonably Assured Resources by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in their Red Book. The Red Book is considered the most credible source for uranium deposit data and is cited by proponents and opponents of nuclear energy alike.
Besides Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR), all other classes of uranium resources are described as “undiscovered”. Discovered resources will only last 57 years at the current consumption rate and assuming we can recover 100% of the uranium in these ores. If we assume a more reasonable 58% recovery rate (European historic) and assume nuclear power grows at a modest 2% per year then we will run out of discovered uranium resources within 23 years. Clearly we have considerable supply problems if we try to grow nuclear power much beyond the current level of consumption.
While nuclear power poses serious problems with cost, safety, and waste, the most obvious problem is the future supply of uranium. If there is not a huge reliable supply, then nuclear power is not the solution to our energy problems. If the supply is very limited, then it is not even a small part of the solution space. But if policy makers commit to nuclear power and the supply turns out to be limited, then uranium mining may be extended to sites that aren’t currently classified as economically viable.
On Wednesday evening, 6 PM, October 26 a community meeting at the Middleburg Community Center hosted by the Goose Creek Association, with the Piedmont Environment Council and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters Education Fund will discuss this important issue. Attendance is free of charge, and while pre-registration is not required, it is encouraged. Register by calling the Goose Creek Association office at (540) 687-3073, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On November 11, 6 PM, at the George Washington University Ashburn Campus, the Piedmont Environmental Council, George Washington University and Sustainable Loudoun are hosting a discussion forum on uranium mining in Virginia. No registration is required and attendance is free. For more information, contact Sustainable Loudoun.
We encourage anyone interested in the future of nuclear power and the possibility of uranium mining in this area to attend at least one of these meetings.
A longer version of this article with supporting data and additional references has been published by the Blue Ridge Leader.
Michael Dittmar, “The End of Cheap Uranium”, Institute of Particle Physics, ETH, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland, June 17, 2011 http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1106/1106.3617v2.pdf