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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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Ultimately, it will fall on the American taxpayers. “You have mining there and those tailings impoundments will be there forever and have to be under government control forever,” Uranium Watch's Sarah Fields said.

And for what gain?

The fate of nuclear energy still seems in limbo as countries like Germany and Japan are swearing off it. In the U.S. the story is more complicated. The average age of our reactors is an elderly 32 years, but in February the OK was given to build the first new nuclear reactor in the country in 30 years. The nuclear industry generally seems one catastrophe away from collapse, and yet the industry clings to life in the U.S. only because of the generous will of taxpayers. What happens if the nuclear lobby falls out of favor in Washington due to public pressure or shifting economics?


In many ways, Virginia may be indicative of where our country’s energy future is headed. The state has dabbled in wind energy, but its attempts thus far are dwarfed by gas drilling, neighboring states’ fracking operations and mountaintop removal coal mines. If Governor McDonnell has his way, residents will also begin to see drilling in their coastal waters. Despite the best science indicating that the ramifications of climate change mean our energy policies are paving a road to a dead-end, we continue to drive full speed ahead. Proponents of the uranium mine echo similar sentiments as the pro-fracking and coal contingents — it’s about jobs and energy independence, they say.

But opponents see rural towns being turned into industrial zones. They fear not just for existing jobs, but are concerned for the air, water, food, quality of life, their health, and their homes. They worry about what will be sacrificed at the expense of an industry that will take what it wants, sell it for the highest price wherever that may be, and move on.

As fracking has spread throughout the East, some worry that the Coles Hill mine could be the first of many uranium mines in the East Coast.

“Geologists suspect that the Coles Hill deposit is not isolated,” writes Andrew Rice for the New Republic. “Scientists argue about the origins of the ore, but it’s most likely a remnant of the same ancient tectonic processes that created the Triassic Basins--meaning that there could be similar deposits up and down the East Coast. Robert Bodnar, a geochemistry professor at Virginia Tech, has spent the last two years studying how the uranium got to Coles Hill. ‘I think there’s a very high probability that there are other deposits of the same size, same grade, as Coles Hill located in the eastern United States,’ he told me.”

In an email to the Associated Press, Susan Hall of the U.S Geologic Survey wrote, “A common scenario in mineral exploration is that a large discovery such as Coles Hill is followed by an influx of exploration companies who comb the countryside and discover additional deposits.”

In the coming months, Virginia legislators will decide the fate of uranium mining in their state, but the vote may well be a harbinger for our energy future.

Tara Lohan is a freelance writer and former senior editor at AlterNet. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan or visit her website, taralohan.com.

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