December 19, 2011 PEC Press Release
President, Piedmont Environmental Council
o: 540.347.2334 ext. 13
Director of State Policy, Piedmont Environmental Council
Today, the National Academy of Sciences released a highly anticipated report on the risks of uranium mining and milling (processing) in Virginia, which confirmed that this activity would expose Virginians to serious risks of radioactive contamination of our water, air, land and farm products.
PEC President Chris Miller says, "Our initial review of the report confirms that uranium mining would be a dangerous experiment for Virginia. The report establishes that neither the mining industry nor federal or state regulators have any experience with uranium mining or milling in climatic and hydrogeological conditions like Virginia's. The risks of containing huge amounts of waste for thousands of years--especially in a wet climate like Virginia's--have never been addressed."
During the debate over potential uranium mining, over the last several years, the Piedmont Environmental Council challenged mining corporations to identify five places with a climate and population density like Virginia's where uranium has been mined safely. The industry was unable to identify any--and after nearly a year of research, the National Academy of Science could not locate any either.
The report does not include any site-specific data or make recommendations about whether Virginia should lift the thirty year old ban on uranium mining and milling. However, the report provides ample evidence of the potential for contamination of ground and surface water and highlights the devastating legacy left by the industry, both decades ago and in recent years. It also confirms the unique challenges presented by the climatic conditions, complex hydrogeology and relatively high population density of Virginia.
Although Virginia Uranium Inc., seems eager to push for an end to the ban in the 2012 General Assembly Session, PEC hopes that the National Academy of Sciences will be given time to meet its contractual obligations with regard to public outreach and education. It is critical that the public and the legislature are able to fully understand the findings and limitations of this study. Only then will we be able to discuss what it means to lift the ban and if it is even possible to draft regulations that would protect the Commonwealth and its citizens.
It will likely take months to begin to understand the findings of this lengthy, technical document. But upon an initial scan, PEC finds plenty of evidence that supports our long-standing opposition to he proposal.
Excerpts from the National Academy of Sciences Report
The risks of uranium mining are heightened in Virginia's wet, stormy climate: "Furthermore, Virginia is subject to relatively frequent storms that produce intense rainfall. It is questionable whether currently-engineered tailings repositories could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years. Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such events, or if they fail to perform as designed." (p. 15)
"Because almost all uranium mining and processing to date has taken place in parts of the United States that have a negative water balance (dry climates with low rainfall), federal agencies have limited experience applying laws and regulations in positive water balance (wet climates with medium to high rainfall) situations." (p. 179)
Natural events or human error could lead to radioactive release: "A mine or processing facility could also be subject to uncontrolled releases of radioactive materials as a result of human error or an extreme event such as a flood, fire, or earthquake." (p. 14)
Virginia farms could be exposed to radioactive contamination: "Exposure could also occur from the release of contaminated water, or by leaching of radioactive materials into surface or groundwater from uranium tailings or other waste materials, where they could eventually end up in drinking water supplies or could accumulate in the food chain, eventually ending up in the meat, fish, or milk produced in the area." (p. 14)
Radioactive waste remains dangerous for thousands of years: "Uranium tailings present a significant potential source of radioactive contamination for thousands of years ... because monitoring of tailings management sites has only been carried out for a short period, monitoring data are insufficient to assess the long-term effectiveness of tailings management facilities designed and constructed according to modern best practices." (p. 15)
Current U.S. regulations are insufficient: "The decay products of uranium (e.g., 230-Th, 226 Ra) provide a constant source of radiation in uranium tailings for thousands of years, substantially outlasting the current U.S. regulations for oversight of processing facility tailings." (p. 104)