Del. Kenneth R. Plum, the Democratic caucus chairman in the House of Delegates, is one of 14 legislators to visit France this month to see a uranium mine at the invitation of a company pushing lawmakers to lift a ban on uranium mining in Virginia.
Last week, when we first wrote about the trip, Plum (Fairfax) did not return a call for comment. But this week his office sent us a statement explaining that he was already going to France on vacation and decided to see the mine at Virginia Uranium’s invitation while he was there.
He said he later learned he would be going to a closed mine and, from news reports, that the cost of the trip would be about $10,000 per person.
“This new information left me very uncomfortable, not because I thought it would influence how I would vote on lifting the uranium ban or on any other issue, but that others might perceive that having been on the trip would influence me,’’ Plum wrote.
Plum said he called Virginia Uranium at the last minute and told them he would not be participating in the trip and that he would “reimburse them for any expenses they had incurred for me.”
Instead, he traveled on his own to see the closed mine in Bessines, in western France, where uranium was excavated for 50 years until the late 1990s, and met with the company’s director of communications.
Five legislators went to France last week to see the Bessines mine. Seven others went on the five-day trip — expected to cost $10,000 a person — this week. Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) said he was sightseeing in Paris and joined the group for the day but paid his own airfare and lodging.
The trips are permissible under Virginia law and must be reported to the state as gifts next year. Most legislators declined the pricey jaunt — the second invite from the company in two years — months before the fall election.
Two uranium deposits were found three decades ago in Coles Hill, near Chatham, a small town in Pittsylvania County. They begin at the ground’s surface, under land used to raise cattle, hay and timber, and run about 1,500 feet deep.
The company said tests indicate that about 119 million pounds of uranium — worth as much as $10 billion — are below the surface. That would be enough to supply all the country’s nuclear power plants for about two years or all of Virginia’s demands for 75 years.
Virginia Uranium hopes to persuade the General Assembly to repeal the nearly three-decade ban on mining at its regular session in January, by convincing lawmakers that mining can be done safely. The trip to France is designed to help show that mining was done safely and the region remains free of radiation.