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Uranium mining: A fiscal conservative might well say ‘no’ / January 16, 2013
Traditional conservative values support continuing the moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia. Moving forward with legalization of uranium mining in Virginia would be expensive for taxpayers, with no guarantee the costs would ever be recovered.

The governor’s Uranium Working Group (UWG) report lists the many protective actions Virginia would need to take to regulate and monitor uranium mining and milling. Following through on all the suggested safety measures would require establishing a comprehensive uranium mining and milling regulatory program.

Picking and choosing among the protective actions listed in the UWG report should not be part of the legislative debate. Do it all. Do it right. Or don’t do it.

The only proposal worth considering — other than maintaining the moratorium — is a fully funded, fully staffed, comprehensive, state-level, statewide program that incorporates all the measures outlined by the UWG. Even then, it might be impossible to guarantee a degree of safety in operation that would be acceptable to a majority of citizens.

Dr. Paul Locke, chairman of the National Academy of Sciences study committee, recently told reporters, “Putting protective regulations into place would be a very, very, very difficult task. The UWG laid out an extensive framework — actions Virginia could take. We must do them all. If Virginia sunsets the moratorium, Virginia should oversee the uranium milling, as well as mining. To do so, Virginia would need the people, the expertise, and the coordination, in addition to both new laws and new regulations. The question in my mind is whether we, as a commonwealth, are ready to make that investment.”

The NAS report concluded, “If the Commonwealth of Virginia rescinds the existing moratorium on uranium mining, there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and/or processing could be established within a regulatory environment that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment. …The optimum approach would be for an entirely new uranium mining, processing, and reclamation law or laws to be enacted. In addition, a new regulatory program would be required to implement this law or laws.” (p. 275-6)

The Uranium Working Group’s report shows us those steep hurdles — steep in terms of money, expert staffing and the proactive, independent diligence required to create an appropriately protective regulatory system.

The UWG estimated the resources needed. If Virginia ends the moratorium and regulates both uranium mining and milling, state agencies would need $5.388 million per year for 30 new employees and expenses. If Virginia leaves regulation of milling to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, ending the moratorium would cost $4.388 million per year with 22 new employees.

The UWG recommended that the uranium industry pay the full costs of regulation, but did not propose a method to recoup the millions in startup costs. Nor is it certain that a uranium industry would operate in Virginia and pay any license fees and taxes.

Both private and public benefits of mining depend on uranium prices, which are volatile.

Price uncertainty is critical to risk-benefit analysis of whether to end the moratorium. Low prices mean lower profits, lower tax revenues, fewer jobs and lower wages. If the price is low enough, a mine and mill in Virginia would not be economically viable and would not begin operations or would shut down, in which case most or all of the benefits would cease to exist.

Virginians need to assess the immediate hurdle of investing millions to oversee uranium mining. Ending the moratorium is a high-risk financial investment for Virginia taxpayers. If things do not go well, that money is gone.

Whether to allow uranium mining is not a theoretical question; it is a multifaceted policy question that’s political, scientific, technical, financial and, above all, practical. It requires weighing uncertain benefits against substantial risks to health, the environment and the economy and heavy costs for a regulatory program.

Quite a bit of money has been spent already. And a lot more would be required — up front.

Do we, as a commonwealth, support committing the tremendous resources and diligence essential to proper oversight of uranium production in Virginia? Can we say, with a high level of certainty, that the benefits of legalizing uranium mining would outweigh the risks and serve the greater good for the long term?

A fiscal conservative might well say, “No.”

Katie Whitehead is a Pittsylvania native and resident. Contact her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). This commentary also appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Jan. 10.

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