Virginia Uranium’s mining and milling plans are not yet finalized. The Commonwealth of Virginia must adopt a regulatory framework for uranium mining before Virginia Uranium has the tools needed to propose the full scope of its operations. Moreover, baseline studies must be conducted before Virginia Uranium will have all the data necessary to submit an application for a permit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. The information below reflects the current state of Virginia Uranium’s plans, but please be cautioned that these plans are subject to further revision.
Virginia Uranium’s operation at Coles Hill will entail three main activities: underground mining, milling, and tailings disposal. After building a largely underground mine, Virginia Uranium will excavate the hard rock bearing uranium and process that rock to remove the uranium in its on-site mill. Virginia Uranium will also dispose of the tailings at Coles Hill. None of the other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as conversion, enrichment, and the operation of a nuclear reactor, will take place at Coles Hill.
Virginia Uranium will produce yellowcake, U3O8, the natural form of uranium.
There are multiple reasons why Virginia Uranium plans a largely underground mine as opposed to an open-pit or in-situ-leaching operation. Underground mining is more economically viable than open-pit mining at Coles Hill. In-situ recovery is used mainly in western U.S. states due to the porous sandstone that hosts uranium in the region. In-situ recovery requires pumping large amounts of liquid underground to dissolve the ore and leach out uranium. The solid granite-type rock that hosts the uranium deposit at Coles Hill is not porous enough to make in-situ leaching an option. Moreover, underground mining results in a much smaller surface impact and far less waste than open-pit mining.
Though Virginia Uranium intends to build an underground mine, certain parts of a mining and milling operation will still be visible at Coles Hill. Head frames and declines used to remove ore from the ground, ventilation shafts, and all other support buildings will be in the vicinity of the mine. The mill and water treatment facilities will also be in the area. The milling facility will resemble a modern factory or warehouse. It will have little surface impact and must meet NRC guidelines while in operation. It will be decommissioned, dismantled, and buried once milling activities have ceased. Much of the tailings will be mixed with a cement-like substance and put back into the mine shafts and drifts, and the rest will be stored in heavily-monitored and regulated below-grade storage facilities.
Once the underground mine is closed, then the surface can be used for activities such as raising hay and grazing cattle—the same activities currently taking place at Coles Hill. Virginia Uranium proposes to place all available lands not required to be transferred to the Department of Energy (DOE) into perpetual conservation easements. Most of the 3,500 acres currently controlled by VUI will ultimately be placed into such easements.
Once the NRC has approved the reclamation of the mill and tailings, ownership of the tailings disposal cells will be offered to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. If Virginia refuses to accept responsibility for the reclaimed land, responsibility will then be transferred to the Department of Energy for long-term care and maintenance.
Sites Instructive for Virginia Uranium:
Uranium has been mined in various parts of the world, and some former mining sites bear a resemblance to Coles Hill. If Virginia Uranium develops the deposit, the technologically-advanced best practices of the industry will inform the operation. Trips to active mining operations in Texas and Saskatchewan, Canada, as well as decommissioned mines in Bessines, France, and Elliot Lake, Canada, have already helped the management team to start planning the safest mining operation possible in the world.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, uranium was extensively produced as a byproduct of phosphate mining in Louisiana and Florida – both states with higher levels of rainfall, larger bodies of water, and higher propensities for severe weather events such as hurricanes and flooding than Virginia. From 1981-1992, uranium production in Louisiana and Florida averaged two million pounds of uranium per year, the approximate level of production expected at Coles Hill.
The former mining locations most resembling Pittsylvania County are in France. In Bessines, for example, uranium was safely mined from the late 1940s through the late 1990s. Bessines has strikingly similar rainfall and humidity levels to Pittsylvania County, boasts significant beef and dairy cattle production, and accommodates a much higher population density than Pittsylvania County.
For example, uranium was mined with the open-pit method in France at Puy de L’Ages from 1977 until 1993. The former open-pit is now a trout fishing pond, which you may see in the pictures below.
1) Puy de L’Ages During Mining in 1977
2) Puy de L’Ages after Reclamation
3) Puy de L’Ages, Now a Trout-Fishing Lake, in 2009