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Limits of science / March 26, 2009
The uranium mining subcommittee of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission is moving forward with a study of the health, environmental and economic impacts of uranium mining in Pittsylvania County. No surprise there. The subcommittee this week issued a draft report that lists the topics of study for a scientific commission, just the sort of bureaucratic action you’d expect in what promises to be a long, arcane, occasionally tendentious thrill ride to Armageddon.

The chances of quashing the study were never very good. While the Coal and Energy Commission only wound up with this assignment after the General Assembly balked last year, the fact that the politicos would trot out an obscure state board to provide cover while the uranium mining approval process grinds onwards should tell you something. While I suppose it’s possible that a scientific study could come back a year or so from now with a huge thumbs-down on the Coles Hill mine site, I wouldn’t bet money on it happening.

In the nice, neat scientific way, a case likely can be made that mining could be carried out safely in Pittsylvania County or anywhere else for that matter. Henry Hurt of Chatham, an investor in Virginia Uranium Inc., buttonholed me after a public hearing a while back to give me a copy of a book, “Power To Save The World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy.” (Hurt was lugging around copies in the back of his car). The author, Gwyneth Cravens, argues that nuclear power is not only safe but holds the potential to rescue the Earth from the impending disaster of global warming — to say nothing of the here-and-now damage wreaked by coal-fired plants. The book’s a decent read, although to be honest I skimmed over most of the nuclear engineering stuff to see what it had to say about mining specifically. The answer: not much.

Cravens’ book makes a reasonable, science-based case for nuclear energy. I think one thing that tends to get overlooked in the debate about nuclear power is how the technology could be much, much better; in fact, if you’re looking at the European nuclear industry for comparison, the technology is much better. The Europeans have made great strides in reprocessing nuclear wastes, significantly reducing the amount of highly toxic material that must be stored for tens of thousands of years after use in reactors. (Reprocessing of wastes also lessens, in theory, the need to dig more uranium out of the ground.) The conventional wisdom suggests that the U.S. nuclear industry lags behind the rest of the world because America has been so averse to nuclear power since Three Mile Island, and therefore innovation simply hasn’t happened. This may be true. I don’t know. Why exactly this is supposed to matter in a globalized world — where we’re supposed to be able to trade everything freely, from cornstalks to centrifuges — is also something I don’t understand.

Since two of our primary sources for uranium are Canada and Australia, and neither is governed by Al Qaeda, I don’t get the argument for mining uranium in a suboptimal setting such as the East Coast of the United States. Can’t we be content just importing the stuff? I certainly understand the micro-argument for the Pittsylvania mine project — a small number of individuals stand to make many millions of dollars in profit, and the rest of us might enjoy a little of the ol’ trickle-down — but none of this strikes me as a particularly good reason to sign away our birthright to a clean and safe environment. Just about any project of this scale and type will entail some amount of risk, and Lord knows the population of Southside Virginia probably has suffered incredible short-term harm from having nearby coal plants spewing all sorts of pollutants into the atmosphere. But this sort of damage can be mitigated and fixed, whereas I’m pretty sure a future catastrophe involving uranium wastes couldn’t be undone so easily.

It’s not the science of uranium mining that anyone should fear. It’s the quality of human oversight of mine tailings storage for the next 10,000 years that should keep people awake at night. Do we really have it in us as human beings to ensure that the containment facilities will hold, the inspection regimes will be maintained, the corporate capital requirements will be met? What assurances do we have that the best-laid plans won’t go awry? There was never a more perfect mascot for the nuclear power industry than Homer Simpson, in whom we recognize not only a bit of our own selves but mankind’s endearing ability to make hash of anything it touches. What’s amusing in cartoon form is, however, not so funny in person. What would happen to Southside Virginia if at some point in the distant future our fate relied on the dependable action of a Homer Simpson or Joseph Hazelwood or Bernie Madoff? It’s not science per se that represents the problem. But rather, oh, the humanity.

Of course, the National Academy of the Sciences or the National Research Council or whoever conducts the study may look at matters differently. Those folks certainly are a lot smarter than I am, so I’ll look forward to reading their conclusions assuming it comes to that. But just for once, I’d like to see not only a forward-looking assessment of uranium mining practices but also a backwards glance at how well the mining industry has lived up to its social obligations. The record is a pretty sorry one, so therefore it’s never surprising that, when confronted with this disastrous past, representatives for the industry invariably offer responses along the lines of “well, we don’t do it that way any more.” Or, “that was all in the past.” Well, sure. But one of the few silver linings of our current economic distress is the reminder that soothing talk and easy assurances aren’t really all they’re cracked up to be. When Wall Street and Washington teamed up to deregulate the financial markets in the name of increased efficiency, freer flows of money and greater wealth creation, little did we recall that the old restraints had been put in place to stave off the type of financial buccaneering that brought on the first Great Depression. And so here we are: Chagrined by the recklessness around us, at the mercy of zombie banks and renegade financiers, the nation is beset by “toxic waste” flushing through the banking system. What in this story leads one to believe that we need not worry about real live toxic wastes, too? It takes a great deal of faith to trust that all the way down the line, many thousands of years into the future, Southside Virginia will be immune to a similar bonfire of the insanities. Science or no science, one thing is clear: Mine uranium here, and Southside will never be the same again.

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