BELOW A PLOT of land in south-central Virginia lies billions of dollars worth of uranium ore, the critical radioactive fuel for America’s nuclear reactors. Virginia Uranium Inc. wants to extract it, bringing economic activity to the region. But three decades ago, the commonwealth imposed a moratorium on uranium mining. State lawmakers, who are likely to consider this winter whether to lift the moratorium, should be open to allowing uranium mining to proceed — but carefully.
Among other things, critics of lifting the moratorium claim that uranium mining poses dangers to water resources, particularly because the area is prone to big storms. Contamination, they say, could occur even years after mining ceases; “tailings,” a byproduct of ore processing, might someday escape from storage zones. U.S. uranium mines, they say, have so far been located in the arid climates of western states, and even then water contamination has occurred around mining and milling sites. Virginians, they argue, should be very careful about allowing mining in their wetter climate.
Mining advocates counter that massive water contamination from tailings is unlikely, given modern standards and the care with which the company promises to proceed. It says it will isolate all its tailings below ground and far from rivers and flood plains. And it points out that uranium is mined around the world, in places with wetter climates than that of the American west. Canada is one of the largest producers, and its nuclear regulator insists that uranium mining there is very safe, given required safeguards.
A 2011 National Academy of Sciences study highlights the progress of mining standards, and it notes that instances of environmental damage “have mostly been observed at mining facilities that operated at standards of practice that are generally not acceptable today.” But it also cautions that it’s difficult to know whether below-ground storage facilities will remain durable for the hundreds of years they are designed to last.
In the face of some inevitable uncertainty — but also plenty of experience from around the world from which to draw — lawmakers’ best option is to lift the moratorium while ensuring all the caution mining advocates say they favor. That means requiring a complete plan, from permitting to cleaning up the site, decades of monitoring, and directives premised on the notion that environmental disturbances should be as minimal as reasonably achievable, not just up to basic requirements. The cost of compliance, meanwhile, should fall to Virginia Uranium.