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Spring 2012 Vol. 12 Number 1



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Uranium Mining in Virginia

©Dynamic Graphics/liquidlibrary/Getty Images One of the largest uranium deposits in the United States is located at Coles Hill in southern Virginia, but this deposit has remained untapped due to a nearly 30-year statewide moratorium on mining and processing of uranium ore. In recent years, however, calls for the state legislature to lift the ban have grown stronger.

To help inform deliberations on the possibility of future uranium mining in Virginia, the state legislature asked the National Research Council to examine the scientific, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of mining and processing Virginia’s uranium resources.

The resulting report found that a number of health and environmental issues and related risks would need to be addressed for uranium mining to be undertaken safely. By implementing modern, internationally accepted best practices in the field, including timely and meaningful public participation, many of these risks could be mitigated. Nevertheless, many unknowns exist, and “steep hurdles” would need to be surmounted before uranium mining and processing could take place within a regulatory setting that appropriately protects workers, the public, and the environment.

The committee that wrote the report noted that of the 55 occurrences of uranium in Virginia, only the Coles Hill deposit has sufficient ore of high-enough grade to have the potential to be economically viable. To determine the most appropriate mining and processing methods for the deposit, and the particular risks that might be associated with exploitation at the site, an extensive site-specific evaluation would be required, which the committee was not tasked to undertake.

The report notes that uranium deposits in Virginia are likely found in hard rock, rather than “soft” rock like coal, so many of the technical aspects of uranium mining would be essentially the same as for other types of hard rock mining. However, uranium mining carries the additional risk of exposure to ionizing radiation from uranium and its decay products. The committee also noted that Virginia is susceptible to extreme natural events, including heavy precipitation and earthquakes, which would need to be taken into account when evaluating any site’s suitability for mining and processing.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said that the moratorium on uranium mining should remain in place in 2012 until the state is able to thoroughly review the Research Council report and three other commissioned studies on the topic.   -- Jennifer Walsh


Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific, Technical, Environmental, Human Health and Safety, and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium Mining and Processing in Virginia. Committee on Uranium Mining in Virginia, Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2012, approx. 370 pp.; ISBN 0-309-22087-4; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $63.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by Paul Locke, associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore. 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.



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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences