International best practice could help the state of Virginia to overcome “steep hurdles” if a 30-year moratorium on uranium mining is lifted, a major independent study has concluded.
The National Research Council, the operating arm of the US National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, was commissioned to provide an independent review of the scientific, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining, processing, and reclamation in Virginia by the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission in 2010.
The expert committee put together by the National Research Council was asked to assess the physical and social context in which uranium mining and processing might occur; national and global uranium markets; technical options and best practices for uranium mining, processing, and reclamation; and potential impacts on public health, worker safety, and the environment. It was also requested to review the state and federal regulatory framework for uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation, but was not asked to assess the benefits or risks of uranium mining either nationally or locally, nor to make any recommendations about whether or not uranium mining should be permitted in Virginia. Rather, the peer-reviewed report’s purpose is to “inform the public discussion about uranium mining and to assist Virginia’s lawmakers in their deliberations.”
The committee identified three overarching best-practice concepts recognised and applied by the international uranium mining and processing community: taking the full life cycle of uranium mining and cleanup into consideration when planning a mining and processing facility; using the expertise and experience of professionals familiar with internationally accepted best practices including legal, environmental, health, monitoring, safety and engineering elements; and the need for meaningful and timely public participation throughout the life cycle of a project.
The report notes that only the Coles Hill uranium deposit appears to have the potential to be economically viable, and that underground or open-pit mining would be the probable methods of extraction for uranium deposits in Virginia. Many of the technical aspects of uranium mining would therefore be essentially the same as for other types of hard rock mining, albeit with the extra dimension of exposure to radiation and its decay products. Worker and public health risks could be mitigated through “modern internationally accepted best practices.”
Virginia’s lack of experience with modern underground and open pit uranium mining and processing is one of the major problems to overcome if uranium mining is to take place in the state, the report concludes. Likewise, the state does not currently have a suitable structure in place to regulate uranium mining. Such problems would not be insurmountable, and the report helpfully suggested that Virginia look to experiences in Canada and Colorado, where laws and regulations based on modern best practices have been put in place in recent years. The committee estimated that it would take at least five to eight years after the initial granting of any licence for mining to begin in Virginia, but that time could be used to build a “robust regulatory and management culture based on safety and citizen involvement.”
Long-term management of uranium tailings was seen as a potential problem, although if designed and built according to modern best practices the report said that tailings impoundments should be safe for “at least 200 years.”
Virginia governor Bob McDonnell said that he would refrain from commenting on the report until the state had been able to thoroughly review it. However, he reiterated the need for Virginia to remain “prudent” on the potential lifting of the moratorium. “All energy development should be pursued if it will create jobs, spur our economy, reduce Virginia’s and the nation’s dependence upon foreign energy supplies, and be done in a safe and responsible manner,” he said in a statement.
The Coles Hill uranium deposit was first discovered in 1978 and 2008 NI 43-101 figures showed it to contain measured resources of 3260 tU and indicated resources of 42,800 tU. Virginia Uranium Inc, headed by the Coles family in whose ancestral land the deposit lies, has been lobbying in association with Virginia Energy Resources Inc for permission to mine the deposit since 2007.