Friday, February 8, 2013

NIMBY on Uranium Mining

The Commonwealth of Virginia has been considering removing a long-standing ban on uranium mining. Virginia Uranium, Inc. had proposed mining the largest undeveloped US uranium deposit, the Coles Hill deposit, located in Pittsylvania County in the south-central area of the Commonwealth. It is estimated to contain about 119 million pounds of uranium oxide and be worth more than $7 billion. The mine would have created more than 300 jobs in an economically struggling area of the state. We wrote earlier about new technology that might be applied to reduce environmental risks that might arise from mining operations.

On January 31, 2013, State Senator John Watkins, sponsor of a bill to require state agencies to write regulations for uranium mining, removed his bill from consideration by the Virginia Senate Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee. Had those regulations been written and approved (a long, uncertain, and fractious process in and of itself) the mining ban would effectively have been lifted at some time in the future. Although a companion bill is in committee in the House of Delegates, Senator Watkins’ action yesterday effectively ends the prospect of uranium mining in Virginia, at least for the foreseeable future.

Senator Watkins issued a press release from which we quote:

"[Uranium mining] would be the beginning of an entirely new era in Virginia in terms of research and development in a field to which we are already committed. … there is a lack of understanding regarding the world marketplace and the availability of uranium for use as nuclear fuel. Undeniably, nuclear power production is the cleanest system that we have developed to date that is capable of producing energy at a scale that not only is needed in Virginia but certainly across our nation. The emotion and fear that some have inspired on this subject have, for now at least, overcome the science and the engineering that we have worked so hard in Virginia to elevate in our educational systems and in our research facilities.

"For those of you who have promoted offshore drilling-and I support it with you-the energy that the Coles Hill uranium deposit would supply is 22 times greater than all of Virginia’s offshore oil reserves combined.

"And while most people recognize that nuclear power is absolutely vital for America’s and Virginia’s future, few seem to understand that our country now depends on foreign suppliers for more than 90 percent of the uranium we use.’’

Opposition groups (one of which is ironically named ‘Alliance for Progress in Southern Virginia’) raised issues such as risks of surface and groundwater contamination, health effects to mine workers, and release of toxins and radioactivity. It is truly curious that groups that purport to embrace ‘progress’ often, in fact, are against true progress and the application of technological innovations that can reduce the risks they claim to be ‘concerned’ about.

As an example of this mind-set, an AP reporter mentioned a number of studies on the proposed mining, including one by the National Research Council, and included the following stunning statement that appears to reflect his personal bias in an article published on January 31:

"None of the studies has offered absolute assurances that mining and milling can be done risk-free.’’

If they were credible, objective studies then they would not have included a) ‘absolute assurance’; and b) estimates of 0% probability of risk.

No human activities are without risk of injury or death - there is always risk. The job of the planners, engineers, and technologists involved in a project such as the proposed Coles Hill mining is to identify and reduce risks to acceptable levels.

If we as a society are now at the point where the standard (at least in the reporter’s mind, but don’t forget, reporters influence the thinking and understanding of their readers.) for activities, in this case resource extraction, is zero risk, we are done.

The reporter, and others ‘concerned’ about potential risks from uranium mining might consider the comparative risk of their own daily activities, as reported in 2007 by the New York Times:

RiskAnnual DeathsLifetime Risk
Heart disease652,4861 in 5
Cancer 553,8881 in 7
Stroke 150,0741 in 24
Hospital infections99,0001 in 38
Flu59,6641 in 63
Car accidents 44,7571 in 84
Suicide31,4841 in 119
Accidental poisoning19,4561 in 193
MRSA (drug resistant bacteria)19,0001 in 197
Falls 17,229 1 in 218
Drowning3,3061 in 1,134
Bike accident7621 in 4,919
Air/space accident 7421 in 5,051
Excessive cold 620 1 in 6,045
Sun/heat exposure2731 in 13,729
Shark attack621 in 60,453
Lightning 471 in 79,746
Train crash 241 in 156,169
Fireworks111 in 340,733