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Catastrophe in the Making: Mining for Uranium Could Begin on the East Coast

Despite public outcry, Virginia could permit mining at one of the world's largest uranium deposits.

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The governor has declared his intentions to make “Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast.” He has said, “Energy is the lifeblood of our nation's economic growth. More energy means more jobs and we need to use all of our domestic energy resources.”

Does this mean Gov. McDonnell is willing to use his political muscle to lift the ban? It’s not clear, but Virginia Uranium and its lobbyists are working hard — and may be seeking an alternate strategy instead of a straight vote on the ban. O’Connor reported for DC Bureau, "Whitt Clement, head of the state government relations team at Hunton & Williams and one of 19 lobbyists employed by Virginia Uranium, told a closed-door meeting of Virginia business leaders in Williamsburg last month that the company is working on legislation that would authorize state agencies to draft regulations to govern mining rather than voting directly on the project."

The Uranium Working Group’s findings were released just this week and it was news that State Senator John Watkins would be introducing legislation during the 2013 session to lift the moratorium. In a news release on December 3 he said, “I have made a request to Legislative Services for legislation that adheres to the principles outlined by the UWG (Uranium Working Group) and intend to be the patron of such a bill.”

If Virginia does vote to lift the moratorium it would only be for uranium mining – the milling would be overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, unless Virginia applies to be an “agreement state” and take over the monitoring of milling. In either case, Virginia Uranium would have many more hoops to jump through before its project could be approved by state and federal regulators.

A Matter of Economics

At a public meeting convened by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Uranium Working Group in Chatham during August, longtime resident Eloise Nenon told the audience she’s been fighting uranium mining in Virginia for 52 years. She started the first area organization with six women sitting around her dining room table. She believes that most of what would be mined in Virginia would be headed overseas; she said China is the primary market for Virginia’s uranium.

The U.S. imports about 90 percent of the uranium that is used in nuclear reactors, leaving many people to point to uranium mining in Virginia as a key to energy independence. But, as with fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil, just because they are mined or drilled in the U.S., doesn’t mean they’ll be burned here. The energy industry operates on the global market, as Scott Harper reported for the Virginia Pilot:

Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, operates the North Anna and Surry stations. Asked about possible uranium mining in the state, a corporate spokesman was ambivalent.

“We are trading in the world market for fuel and able to secure uranium at competitive prices to help keep our costs down for our customers,” Jim Norvelle, a Dominion spokesman, said in a statement. “It’s hard to know right now whether having a uranium mine in Virginia would be economic for us.”

During the Chatham meeting, resident Ian Kelly said he believes it’s best to know where one’s energy comes from, even if it’s eventually shipped overseas, and he likened it to the farm-to-table movement of local foods. It’s a sentiment similar to what Walter Coles himself has offered. He told the New York Times, “The country needs uranium. We need it for our ships, we need it for our nuclear power utilities. It’s better that we exploit our own natural resources as opposed to importing it.”

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