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There’s no bar to uranium milling / June 28, 2013
Uranium milling is legal in Virginia. So is the storage of uranium mill tailings. Virginia Uranium is not asking for milling regulations. It doesn’t have to.

It’s important to understand when “uranium mining” means just that — mining only, and when it is used as shorthand for uranium mining, milling and tailings storage. After failing to get the mining moratorium removed in January, the company has been asking the governor to draft regulations for uranium mining — just mining, not milling or the waste storage that goes with it.

Uranium milling is allowed in Virginia under the regulatory authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Anyone can apply to the NRC for a license to build a uranium mill to process uranium ore and what’s called “alternate feed.” State approval is not needed.

Alternate feed is material other than natural uranium ores, usually from cleanup sites. Some alternate feed contains uranium with economic value, worth processing; other alternate feeds can be radioactive waste with no value, just long-term liability. Alternate feed has no mining costs; on the contrary, customers pay for reprocessing and disposal of their material.

There is only one conventional uranium mill operating in the United States. The White Mesa Mill in Utah has survived in part by reprocessing alternate feed shipped from across the US and from Canada. Utah took over regulatory authority for uranium mills from the NRC largely because the state wanted to judge for itself the safety and liability of alternate feed.

Regardless of the source, approximately 99.9% of uranium ore and alternate feed typically stays at the mill site as tailings. Tailings contain unrecovered uranium and radioactive decay products, notably radon, thorium, radium and other heavy metals, as well as hazardous processing chemicals. Tailings remain radioactive and hazardous for thousands of years — in practical terms: forever.

The NRC makes its licensing decisions based on “the risk to the public health and safety and the environment” balanced against “the economic costs involved and any other factors the Commission determines to be appropriate.”

States cannot dictate regulations to the NRC; instead, the Commonwealth has the option of administering its own more stringent regulatory program for uranium mills. For example, Virginia might wish to follow recognized best practices for tailings storage and require below-grade, double-lined tailings cells to reduce the risk of leakage and eliminate the risk of dam failure. The NRC doesn’t necessarily impose such a requirement.

This year Sen. John Watkins proposed legislation to remove the moratorium exclusively for one company, Virginia Uranium, to mine one site, Coles Hill. The bill gave the false impression that it guaranteed tailings would be stored below grade and made no mention of alternate feed. Watkins did not propose that Virginia regulate milling, which is the only way to require below-ground storage or prohibit alternate feed.

Recently, VUI spokesman Patrick Wales quoted Virginia’s Uranium Administrative Group’s 1984 report: “We conclude that the moratorium on uranium development can be lifted …” He did not complete the quote, which continued, with emphasis: “… if essential specific recommendations derived from the work of the task force are enacted into law. Should any of these basic prerequisites fail to be included in legislation, we as a group can no longer support the above conclusion.” First among nine “essential” recommendations was that Virginia take primary responsibility for regulating uranium milling.

Deliberately distorting the 1984 conclusion, Virginia Uranium fails to convey or confront the reality of what establishing a truly protective regulatory environment for uranium development would involve. Any remotely plausible assertion that uranium mining, milling and tailings storage could or would be done safely is conditional — it has to be based on the commitment to meet specific minimum requirements.

Those eager to take on the “steep hurdles” highlighted in the NAS report should propose regulations that would meet these requirements.

Virginia Uranium’s PEP supporters (People for Economic Prosperity) have signed their names to this statement: “Knowing that mining uranium here in Virginia will be regulated, controlled, and safe, we want to see the Coles Hill uranium project move forward as expeditiously as possible.”

Regulation, control, and safety do not happen by themselves. They take effort, time, and money. Virginia Uranium and its supporters are asking for expediency — not robust state policy addressing uranium milling and tailings.

Katie Whitehead, a Pittsylvania County native and resident, served as information officer for Virginia’s Uranium Administrative Group in 1983. Contact her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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