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Date:  Dec. 19, 2011

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Report Identifies Health, Environmental Issues, and Best Practices To Mitigate Some Risks if Virginia Lifts Ban on Uranium Mining

 

WASHINGTON — A number of health and environmental issues and related risks need to be addressed when considering whether to lift the almost 30-year moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia, says a new report from the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering.  

 

"Internationally accepted best practices, which include timely and meaningful public participation, are available to mitigate some of the risks involved," said Paul Locke, chair of the committee that wrote the report and associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore.  "However, there are still many unknowns." 

 

The committee concluded that if Virginia lifts its moratorium, there are "steep hurdles to be surmounted" before mining and processing could take place within a regulatory setting that appropriately protects workers, the public, and the environment, especially given that the state has no experience regulating mining and processing of the radioactive element.

                       

The study was requested by the Commonwealth of Virginia after owners of a large uranium deposit at Coles Hill in southern Virginia and other groups began in recent years to call for an end to the moratorium.  The committee was asked to assess the physical and social context in which uranium mining and processing might occur; national and global uranium markets; technical options and best practices for uranium mining, processing, and reclamation; and potential impacts on public health, worker safety, and the environment.  It was also requested to review the state and federal regulatory framework for uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation.

 

The committee was not asked to recommend whether uranium mining should be permitted, or to consider the potential benefits to the state were uranium mining to be pursued.  It also was not asked to compare the relative risks of uranium mining to the mining of other fuels such as coal.

 

Should the ban be lifted, uranium mining and processing are unlikely to begin for at least five to eight years after the initial granting of a license, the report says.  This period of time should be used to build a robust regulatory and management culture focused on safety and citizen involvement.  The experience of Canada and Colorado -- who have both enacted laws and promulgated regulations in recent years that are based on modern practices -- may be helpful to Virginia. 

 

Although the committee was not asked to specifically assess the suitability of the Coles Hill site, it said the Coles Hill uranium deposit is large enough and of a high enough grade to have the potential to be economically viable.  The United States produces just 3 percent of the world's uranium supply, most of which comes from eight countries.  Last year the United States imported 92 percent of the uranium that it needed to fuel domestic reactors.  Known sources of uranium are sufficient to meet demand at today's rate of usage for 50 years. 

 

Extensive site-specific evaluations would be required to determine the most appropriate mining and processing methods for each uranium deposit, the committee said.  Geological exploration to date indicates that uranium deposits in Virginia are likely found in hard rock rather than "soft" rock as coal is.  Underground mining or open-pit mining would be the probable methods of extraction for any uranium deposits in Virginia.  The committee noted that Virginia is susceptible to extreme natural events, including heavy precipitation and earthquakes, which need to be taken into account when evaluating a site's suitability for mining and processing.  Many of the technical aspects of uranium mining would be essentially the same as for other types of hard rock mining.  However, uranium mining would carry the extra risk of exposure to ionizing radiation from uranium and its decay products.

 

Some of the worker and public health risks could be mitigated or better controlled through modern internationally accepted best practices, the report says.  In addition, if uranium mining, processing, and reclamation were designed, constructed, operated, and monitored according to best practices, near- to moderate-term environmental effects should be substantially reduced, the report says.  Nevertheless, such activities in Virginia would have the potential to impact water, soil, and air quality.  The degree of impact would depend on site-specific conditions, how early a contaminant release is detected by monitoring systems, and the effectiveness of mitigation steps.

                       

The report says less is known about the long-term environmental risks of uranium tailings, the solid waste left after processing.  Tailings disposal sites represent potential sources of contamination for thousands of years.  While it is likely that tailings impoundment sites would be safe for at least 200 years if designed and built according to modern best practices, the long-term risks of radioactive contaminant release are unknown. 

 

Taking the full life cycle of uranium mining and cleanup into consideration when planning a uranium mining and processing facility is one of three overarching best-practice concepts that are recognized and applied by the international uranium mining and processing community, according to the committee.  The second is that any uranium mining project should use the expertise and experience of professionals familiar with internationally accepted best practices and who represent all aspects of a project including legal, environmental, health, monitoring, safety, and engineering elements.  The third concept is the need for meaningful and timely public participation throughout the life cycle of a project.  This would require creating an environment in which members of the public are both informed about, and can comment upon, any decisions that could impact their community.

 

The study questions were provided by the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The study was funded under a contract between the National Research Council and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  Funding was provided to the university by Virginia Uranium Inc. 

 

Contacts: 

Jennifer Walsh, Media Relations Officer

Luwam Yeibio, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

 

Pre-publication copies of Uranium Mining in Virginia are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

Division on Earth and Life Studies

Board on Earth Sciences and Resources

and

Water Science and Technology Board

 

Committee on Uranium Mining in Virginia

 


Paul A. Locke (chair)

Associate Professor

Department of Environmental Health Sciences

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Baltimore, Md.

 

Dr. Corby G. Anderson

Harrison Western Professor

Kroll Institute for Extractive Metallurgy

George S. Ansell Dept. of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering

Golden, Colorado

 

Lawrence W. Barnthouse

President and Principal Scientist

LWB Environmental Services Inc.

Hamilton, Ohio

 

Paul D. Blanc

Professor of Medicine and

Endowed Chair of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

School of Medicine

University of California

San Francisco

 

Scott C. Brooks

Senior Scientist

Environmental Sciences Division

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Oak Ridge, TN

 

Patricia A. Buffler

Professor of Epidemiology;

Dean Emerita; and

Kenneth and Marjorie Kaiser Endowed Chair

School of Public Health

University of California

Berkeley

 

Michel Cuney

Research Director

Genesis Management of Mineral Resources

CNRS

Nancy, France

 

Peter L. deFur

President

Environmental Stewardship Concepts

Henrico, Va.

 

Mary R. English

Senior Fellow

Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment

University of Tennessee

Knoxville

 

Keith N. Eshleman

Professor

Appalachian Laboratory

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Frostburg.

 

R. William Field

Professor

Departments of Occupational and Environmental Health and Epidemiology

College of Public Health

University of Iowa

Iowa City

 

Jill Lipoti

Director

Division of Water Monitoring and Standards

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

Trenton

 

Henry Schnell

Technical Authority Senior Expert

Expertise and Technical Department

Mining Business Unit

Areva Inc. (Retired)

Paris, France

 

Jeffrey J. Wong

Chief Scientist

Department of Toxic Substances Control

California Environmental Protection Agency

Sacramento

 

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

 

David Feary

Study Director