1) How much water will be required and where will it come from?
The mining and milling operations at the Coles Hill project will use on average 300,000 gallons of water daily (Marline 1983, Lyntek 2012)—slightly less than the nearby Town of Chatham, which has about
Rain water and water collected from the site will feed the mill’s water system, and all water will come from precipitation and dewatering the mine on the 3,500-acre site. Virginia Uranium (VUI) will recycle as much water as possible in order to minimize disturbance of the land and reduce costs by conserving the use of chemicals required for the milling process.
2) What effect will the operation have on groundwater in the vicinity and water downstream from the site? Will there be baseline studies?
Many precautions are taken to ensure that no contaminates are released from the site—whether by air or water. These precautions ensure that water downstream of the site is not degraded.
Various measures protect water quality at uranium-mining operationsworldwide. First, it is standard practice to construct waste-water treatment plants on site..All water that enters the site through precipitation or dewatering of the mine will be tested and treated to as needed to EPA standards before being recycled or released to the environment. Locating tailings cells above the Probable Maximum Flood plain in beds of impermeable rock and lining the cells with clay—impermeable to water—and multiple synthetic liners, keep the tailings isolated from groundwater sources. Advanced leak-detection systems monitored in real time also provide in-depth defense against potential leaks. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulatory guide 10 CFR 40, Appendix A, and guide 3.11 go into detail regarding tailings cell structure and construction.
Routine monitoring of water quality is required by state and federal regulations. Before mine and mill development, environmental monitoring stations are required to measure baseline levels of constituents of concern (including contaminants) in the air, groundwater, surface water, and soil. During mill operations, sampling and measurements are conducted at most of these stations as well as other locations in the immediate vicinity of the mine and mill and at downstream locations as required by the license conditions of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Regulatory Guide 4.14). .
It is standard practice for the operating company, independent laboratories, and government agencies to conduct water testing. In addition, many companies invite environmental groups to conduct their own testing at the company’s expense, which VUI has committed to doing.
3) How will the water levels of wells in the vicinity be affected?
Tests conducted by the Commonwealth of Virginia in the 1980s showed that the only well in the Coles Hill neighborhood which a uranium mine and mill could affect was the one located between the two ore bodies. That well belongs to the Coles family and supplies the water to their home. The NRC requires that all wells within a 2km radius be tested throughout the life of the mine (Regulatory Guide 4.14)
4) How will local crops, particularly tobacco and livestock (and products from livestock) be affected?
There is no evidence since the 1970s of uranium mining and milling operations in the United States having a negative impact on food crops, cattle, milk, or tobacco. In fact, Farm Bureau members living near mining operations have stated that they found no negative impact on their land and farming operations, and some of them are harvesting hay on reclaimed mining sites. The same is true for uranium mining and milling sites in France, whose agricultural traditions and climate are almost identical to those of Pittsylvania County. In addition, contrary to rumors circulated locally, the Hershey candy company in Pennsylvania only stopped buying milk from the dairies in the area of the Three-Mile Island immediately after the event as a precaution, but resumed using local milk within two weeks, stating that the company could find no connection between the production of milk and the event at Three-Mile Island.
5) How will radioactive dust be controlled?
Any activities that could create dust at mining operations are done under wet conditions to prevent dust dispersion. Water is used during mining to prevent dust dispersion, and the crushed-up ore is kept wet during processing in the mill. Keeping the tailings wet as a heavy liquid slurry mitigates dust concerns as well.
Several federal laws and regulatory agencies ensure that dust is controlled and appropriately mitigated during mining operations. The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Acts of 1969 and 1977 and the Clean Air Acts of 1970, 1977, and 1990 govern air quality in mining operations. Furthermore, the NRC’s regulatory guidelines 8.30 and 8.31 set standards for controlling dust.
6) In the event of a catastrophic weather event, how will tailings containment cells be affected?
According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations 3.13 and 10 CFR 40 Appendix A, tailings cells must be designed to withstand the most severe weather events which may occur in the areas where they are located.
Tailing cells cannot be located in areas where flooding is at all likely to occur and must be designed to withstand severe precipitation events. The NRC (NuReg 1623) requires licensees to demonstrate that tailings storage facilities are capable of withstanding a “Probable Maximum Flood” event resulting from a “Probable Maximum Precipitation” event. The PMP storm event to which the NRC refers is based off of a 1000 year storm event that can occur in the Coles Hill region. This requirement researches a more extreme storm than the theoretical worst-case scenario presented in the Virginia Beach Baker study.
7) Will VUI hire local workers? Will these jobs be dangerous?
Based on studies by engineering consultants, VUI estimates that 90 percent of its employees will be drawn from the local workforce through aggressive recruitment and on-the-job training. In VUI’s five years in business, nearly every employee–scientists, geologists and office workers—hired by the company have solid roots in Southside Virginia. The company’s goal is to hire locally, and we expect to continue this practice.
No, the jobs will not be dangerous. Mining safety has improved dramatically since the birth of the uranium mining industry in the 1940s, and the statistics on the industry show it. The National Mining Association reports that, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, miners suffer fewer non-fatal occupational injuries than any other cohort of workers from a major industry, except for workers conducting financial activities. Professions with a higher injury incident rate include Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing; Education & Health Services; Manufacturing; Construction; and Leisure & Hospitality. Moreover, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the federal agency regulating uranium mines and mills in Canada, publishes studies showing that uranium miners and the populations living near mining operations are as healthy as the general public. Click here for CNSC study details.
The safety and health of miners is closely regulated by federal and state laws. All workers are required to wear personal dosimeters to measure radiation exposure, which must be reported to the NRC and must not exceed limits set by the NRC. Keeping certain parts of the mining and milling operation wet controls the dust exposure workers receive. Sophisticated ventilation systems disperse radon gas emitted from the ore bodies in underground mines.
8) How will the Coles Hill project affect local roads and traffic?
Due to employees traveling to work, there will be an increase in local traffic during the construction phase and later on when the mine and mill are up and running. However, the operation itself will ship its product in a single tractor-trailer and only a few times a month.
Uranium oxide, or yellowcake, the product VUI will produce, is much safer to transport than common fuels like gas and propane, because it does not burn and is not flammable. It requires the same safety precautions as lead and is only harmful if ingested in significant quantities.
9) What happens if the bottom falls out of uranium prices as it did 25 years ago and mining and milling are no longer economically viable?
Uranium is sold on the basis of long-term contracts which protect both buyers and sellers from any sharp fluctuations in the market. In any event, the public is protected from any negative consequences of a mine closure by the enormous surety bonds the mining company will be required to put in place for reclamation before operations begin.
10) Will local fire/rescue volunteers be expected to service the operation?
Emergency responses to the surface operation in support of the underground mine would be no different from current emergency responses to rock quarries in which, say, some sort of machinery has caught on fire. No aspect of the mining operation will call for an approach dramatically different from the approach firefighters would take to an emergency at any industrial facility in the area. A fire protection system as well as access to water will be fundamental to any mine design plan and would not require the services of local fire departments. VUI will have hazardous materials teams on site to handle any potential releases, but the City of Danville Fire Department also has a regional hazmat team that will be able to respond if needed once material are off-site. The details of this and other requirements for the health and safety of the community will be dictated by the legal/regulatory framework to be developed by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The milling operation is different, and everything about the milling operation will be under the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC has set out thousands of regulations for uranium-processing facilities, and the NRC accounts for the particularities of each milling site during the permitting process. In any case, the overarching responsibility of the NRC is to protect the environment and the public.
11) What adverse health effects have been attributed to uranium mining and milling, and is radiation at the mill site a concern?
Although some opponents of uranium mining claim that radiation from uranium mining operations puts the public at risk for increased rates of cancer, scientific studies have confirmed that it has not resulted in higher rates of cancer for members of the general public living in the vicinity of mines. Dr. John D. Boice, Jr., a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine and science director for the International Epidemiological Institute, has conducted extensive public health studies of populations surrounding uranium mining and milling operations in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. In four separate studies using data spanning 50 years, Dr. Boice examined the public health records of thousands of residents living in close proximity to uranium mining and milling operations. In all four studies, Dr. Boice found no difference in rates of cancer and cancer mortality in those communities compared to communities in other parts of the states.
12) How have regulations for uranium mines and mills changed throughout the history of the industry?
There have been many advances in safety features in all sorts of mining, including uranium mining, over the past several decades. In its nascency, the uranium-mining industry did not consistently employ good ventilation practices; today, sophisticated ventilations systems not only are required but are monitored constantly by safety officers. Thanks to computers, all monitoring is now on a real-time basis so that any problem is instantly reported to the right authority. All miners and mill employees wear dosimeters, which have become common in other fields dealing with radiation, such as personnel administering nuclear medicine in hospitals; these dosimeters measure radiation exposure on a real-time basis. At every level, stringent health and safety regulations exist and are enforced by federal and state authorities.
13) How will the project affect local real estate values?
No statistical evidence exists to show that uranium mining has a negative effect on real estate values in the vicinity of the operation. Generally speaking, real estate values go up in areas where people have more money to spend because of better jobs and higher pay. However, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission authorized a socio-economic study to look at this question, and the Chmura Study was released in December, 2011.
14) Where will this uranium be sold?
The yellowcake produced at Coles Hill is expected to be sold under long-term contracts to utilities (like Dominion Power and Duke Energy). Virginia Uranium will deliver the yellowcake in accordance with those contracts.
15) Will the presence of the operation be of any interest to terrorist organizations?
None whatsoever. Yellowcake, the commodity Virginia Uranium will produce, is not flammable or explosive, which makes it useless in the hands of terrorists. Yellowcake must go through extensive processes, none of which Virginia Uranium will conduct, before it is even ready for a reactor at a power plant, much less a nuclear weapon.
16) Is there a need for more uranium?
Industry experts project that, given the number of new reactors planned and the world-wide growing demand for electricity, the demand for uranium will grow significantly over the next decade. Only freshly-mined uranium may satisfy the growing demand.
The current annual global consumption is 190 million pounds, while annual global mine production is 140 million pounds, resulting in a 50-million pound deficit. Inventory draw downs and the down-blending of weapons-grade material currently make up the difference. Industry experts, however, project that the supply of these secondary sources will decrease by 50% over the next decade, while global demand for uranium will increase, widening the supply-demand gap.
There are 439 operating nuclear power plants operating in 31 countries, and 62 new plants are currently under construction. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that U.S. electricity demand will rise 24 percent by 2035. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently reviewing applications for 31 new reactors in the U.S.
There is an almost inexhaustible amount of uranium existing the world over, but there is a limited supply of uranium that can be extracted at a reasonable cost. For instance, uranium could be extracted from seawater at approximately $250-$300 per pound.
Typically the lead time for bringing a new uranium mine on line is about ten years. It is conceivable that major shortages could occur in the short term, despite there being ample amounts of uranium in the earth’s crust. In other words, a major supply disruption won’t be corrected quickly because it takes years to finance and build a uranium mining and milling facility.