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Uranium bills defeated, now foes worry about new threat / February 11, 2013

Danville Register & Bee
Reprinted with permission

Some uranium mining opponents have nagging doubts and questions about nuclear energy legislation that has passed initial votes this week in the General Assembly, wondering if there’s a crack in the door to uranium mining and milling.

The bills establish the “Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium,” a government authority to promote nuclear energy and research in the state. Andrew Lester, executive director of the Roanoke River Basin Association, said the wording invites skepticism.

“The wording is nebulous enough to let you interpret it any way you want to,” Lester said.

The bills found the authority “for the purposes of making the commonwealth a national and global leader in nuclear energy and serving as an interdisciplinary study, research and information resource for the commonwealth on nuclear energy issues.”

Delegate T. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg, is the patron of House Bill 1790. He said the bill addresses the needs of companies in his district, such as nuclear power companies Areva and Babcock & Wilcox, that would benefit from shared research in a way that would not compromise intellectual property.

“There have been conversations for quite some time with various members … to try to come up with a mechanism to collaborate more efficiently,” Garrett said.

Garrett said uranium and mining and milling is unrelated to his bill.

“Uranium mining and milling is totally separate,” he said. “This bill does not at all include those elements.”

The authority will be governed by a 17-member board, including the presidents of four Virginia universities; the director of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; and six nuclear energy industry representatives, among others.

One sticking point is the bill’s exemptions from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

While some still have misgivings that the legislation is a back door to mining uranium, Southside legislators and environmental advocates said they see no cause for alarm.

Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, said he didn’t see anything that could be construed as a veiled threat.

“I do not believe it will do our area any harm,” Ruff wrote in an email to the Danville Register & Bee. “The focus is on research and improving the climate for nuclear power on land and on our naval vessels.”

He added, “Those working on the bill successfully kept both sides of the mining and milling issue from adding language to the bill that would allow that to be the focus. Nothing was added that will help the pro-mining side, nor was anything added that could block mining.”

However, Ruff and Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, voted against the Senate and House bills this week.

Ruff said he received many calls from people who are suspicious of the bills.

“A number of people were concerned and it’s always better to vote no when in doubt,” he said.

The doubt he considered were not his, but those of his constituents, he said.

“I know where the legislation came from and where it was and the passion of those folks,” he said. “They have no interest whatsoever in having it hijacked by proponents of the uranium mining industry.”

Director Cale Jaffe of the Southern Environmental Law Center said he sees no cause for alarm in its wording, either.

“I don’t see the bill as having anything to do with uranium mining,” Jaffe said.

Jaffe said he is confident the withdrawal of Sen. John Watkins’ uranium bill for lack of support is the end of the matter for awhile. He believes legislators acted wisely, and credits the 2011 National Academy of Sciences report for opening eyes in Richmond.

“That study shed a lot of light for a lot of people that the risks are too great,” he said.

Upon withdrawing his bill, Watkins called upon Gov. Bob McDonnell to employ the Administrative Process Act to write regulations for uranium mining and milling. Jaffe said he does not want to speculate about what the governor will or won’t do, but said he was in a meeting in December to brief the governor on the issue and characterized McDonnell as “very engaged.”

“I was impressed with his eagerness to dig into the issues,” Jaffe said. “He was very focused on the studies.”

A budget amendment that would have kept the state from spending any more money on uranium mining research has failed in committee. Sen. Mark Herring, D-Loudon, authored the amendment, which would have prohibited the state from spending money on the regulation, development or study of regulation of uranium mining.

Herring, who has announced his candidacy for Attorney General, said he offered the amendment after learning the state spent $2 million on McDonnell’s Uranium Working Group.

“There doesn’t seem to be support for uranium mining and lifting the ban,” Herring said. “I don’t think we ought to spend tax money if there’s not support for it.”

Herring expects the issue will remain dormant for this year, citing the withdrawal of Watkins’ legislation.

“I think that sent a real clear signal that the ban’s going to remain in place,” he said.

Lester said the RRBA just wants assurances.

“We are very concerned and we would prefer to have a strong statement in the bill(s) that none of the funds of the Authority will be used to develop regulations,” he said.

He added, “We’re going to have to watch these folks closely forever.”

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