Moratorium on Uranium Mining in Virginia – Past and Present

Virginia on Uranium Mining in the 1980s:

In 1981, the Virginia General Assembly directed the Virginia Coal & Energy Commission (CEC) to conduct a study to assess the potential feasibility and impacts of uranium mining and milling in Virginia. To oversee the study and explore the issue, the CEC established a Uranium Subcommittee.

Over the course of 1981-82, the Uranium Subcommittee held a series of public hearings to explore various aspects of the uranium mining and milling industry. The Subcommittee took a fact-finding trip to Texas to review operating uranium mines and mills and to meet with Texas state legislators regarding the issue. The Subcommittee also met with representatives of regulatory agencies overseeing uranium mines in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. However, the Subcommittee did not conduct any site-specific studies of the potential for uranium mining and milling in Virginia.

In 1983, the General Assembly established a legislative committee known as the Uranium Administrative Group (UAG) to oversee a study to examine the costs and benefits of uranium development at specific sites in Pittsylvania County. To help administer and assess the findings of the site-specific study, the Coal & Energy Commission formed the Uranium Task Force (UTF) under the auspices of the UAG and Uranium Subcommittee in 1984. The UTF was charged with the responsibility to assess the risks and economic costs and benefits of uranium development in Pittsylvania County and to make recommendations to the General Assembly on the acceptability of those risks and the performance standards necessary to limit the risks to an acceptable level.

Shortly after its formation, the UTF retained SENES Consulting Limited to conduct a 12-month assessment of the potential radiological risks associated with uranium development in Pittsylvania County. You may read about precautions taken to limit radiation exposure at uranium mines here.

SENES found that people on site at a potential mine at Coles Hill would be exposed to less than 17 millirem of radiation each year. Population in the immediate area would be exposed to less than 8 millirem. Population living within 50 miles would receive less than 0.04 millirem per year. These exposures are a small fraction of the 320 millirem the average person living in the U.S. receives as background radiation each year, and an even smaller fraction of the average exposure for population living in higher elevations, like Colorado, who receive 400-500 millirem each year. Populations living in some coastal areas of Brazil receive an annual natural background dosage of 900 millirem.

According to the 1984 SENES risk assessment, an annual radiation dose of 10 millirem carries a one-in-a-million risk of health detriment. Compare this to the following activities that carry a risk of death of one-in-a-million: travelling 50 miles by car, living two months in an average stone or brick house, being struck by lightning during a two-year period, dying from air pollution during a two-day period, smoking one-two cigarettes, or living 20 minutes at the age of 60.

Ultimately, the risk assessment concluded “that uranium development [in Pittsylvania County] can be undertaken with minimal risks.” Based on the SENES findings, the UAG concluded in its final report to the CEC “that uranium development activity can be undertaken with an acceptable level of risk and with economic benefits to the state…” and recommended by a 15-2 vote that the General Assembly lift the moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia and begin promulgating the necessary regulatory and permitting structure to enable development to proceed.

In early 1985, the CEC submitted its own report to the General Assembly based on the conclusions and recommendations of the UAG. The CEC report concluded that “the moratorium on uranium development can be lifted if essential specific recommendations derived from the work of the [UTF] are enacted into law.” The report proposed draft legislation to lift the moratorium and establish necessary regulations for the industry.

Of course, legislation was never adopted, and the uranium deposit at Coles Hill has not been mined. Marline, Virginia Uranium’s predecessor company that raised the issue in the 1980s, lost interest in mining the deposit when the price of uranium dropped significantly over the course of the 1980s. High-grade ore bodies in Saskatchewan, Canada, were being developed more cheaply than deposits had ever been developed, driving down the price of uranium. The incident at Chernobyl also spawned global fears about nuclear energy, driving down the prices for uranium.

The Moratorium On Mining: Where We Are Now

Currently in the Commonwealth of Virginia, only the exploration of uranium deposits is allowed by state law. No uranium mining can occur until Virginia creates a regulatory framework, lifts the existing moratorium, and allows a company such as Virginia Uranium to write and submit a permit. The regulatory and permitting process will take several years and will provide many opportunities for public input. 

On November 27, 2007, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) issued a permit to Virginia Uranium to allow the commencement of exploratory drilling of up to 40 holes at Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County. This exploration enabled the company to further assess the size, grade, and depths of the existing uranium deposits. Under state and federal regulations, exploratory drilling is required to meet water quality protection standards and develop full reclamation plans for any disturbed areas. This permit allows research but does not allow any kind of mining.

On-site studies and testing have provided Virginia Uranium with extensive new data about the Coles Hill deposit. In addition, visits to major North American uranium mining operations have enabled Virginia Uranium’s management team to observe the industry’s best practices for incorporation into VUI’s operations.

In 2009, the Virginia Coal & Energy Commission, a Commission of the Virginia General Assembly, chartered two major studies to inform the legislature’s deliberation about lifting the moratorium on uranium mining.

With the benefit of these officially-sanctioned studies, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell directed the state’s agencies to draft a regulatory framework for uranium mining by December 1, 2012.

When such regulations are adopted and the moratorium is lifted, Virginia Uranium Inc. will apply to DMME for a permit to mine the Coles Hill deposit. Additionally, the company will require local zoning and special use permits from Pittsylvania County.

VUI must also obtain permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—the federal agency that oversees uranium milling operations. Approvals will likely be required from other federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). 

The entire process, including the extensive environmental studies for permitting, may take anywhere from four to six years, and it will include numerous opportunities for public input.