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Uranium regs: Looking isn’t leaping / July 11, 2012
Despite the bungling of public outreach and participation in its study process, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Uranium Working Group (UWG) still has a chance to frame the complex uranium controversy in a way that clarifies the issues and distinguishes fact from spin.

The UWG is supposed to pick up where the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and other study groups left off. According to the governor’s chief of staff Martin Kent, “The working group will provide additional information from an objective, scientific, state-regulatory basis to inform everyone about whether and how state regulations might be constructed to ensure public safety while realizing economic benefits.”

We shouldn’t assume that the UWG is conspiring to end the moratorium and “cram this down our throats,” as charged by aggressive opponents labeled “the heck-no brigade” in a recent Times-Dispatch editorial (T-D, June 21).

Expecting the worst of the UWG, attackers risk repeating the mistake they made in denigrating the NAS study committee throughout 2010 and most of 2011. After the committee released its caution-laden report last December, some critics apologized, acknowledging their underestimation of the integrity and independence of the committee members and the NAS process.

So far, no one is force-feeding Virginians uranium — or crow.

History suggests that moratorium supporters needn’t belabor the initial bumbling of the UWG or obstruct the group’s efforts. While the UWG is working toward a December 1 reporting deadline, the 1984 report of a similar group with a similar task is available and may give us some idea of what kind of document to expect.

Remarkably little has changed since the 1984 multi-agency Uranium Task Force (UTF) wrote its report — except the names. When uranium prices peaked in the early 1980s, Marline Uranium and Union Carbide pushed for mining and milling the Swanson deposit in Pittsylvania County. A few years ago spiking prices again made that deposit, now known as Coles Hill, potentially profitable. Since then Virginia Uranium Inc., a start-up exploration company without an identified mining/milling partner, has been pressing to remove the moratorium.

Unlike the UWG and the NAS, the 1984 Uranium Task Force was asked to make a recommendation regarding whether Virginia could safely remove the moratorium. The UTF said, “Yes, but…” and emphasized that the “but…” was as important as the “yes.” The UTF clearly identified essential qualifications and caveats in its report and frankly acknowledged many uncertainties and assumptions on which reasonable people could disagree.

The UTF recommended that Virginia adopt more stringent standards than those required by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1984 and incorporate them in any legislation to end the moratorium.

Draft legislation introduced in the 1985 General Assembly reached the floor of the House of Delegates, which sent it back to the Mining Committee, which took no further action. In other words, after looking at a draft regulatory framework, the 1985 legislature deliberately kept the ban on uranium mining in Virginia.

The 2012 General Assembly chose not to introduce uranium mining legislation and, instead, allowed time for the general public and the UWG to review study reports released late last year.

The NAS report concluded that Virginia would face “steep hurdles” if it ends the ban. The Uranium Working Group is tasked with showing us those hurdles and how we might be able to get over them. The UWG will lay out a framework for what they believe it would take for the Commonwealth to protect public health, the environment, and the economy if the legislature allows uranium development and waste storage. Virginia citizens, including our legislators and governor, will be able to look at a possible regulatory structure before making a decision.

In 1985 legislators looked but didn’t leap. In 2013 legislators might well do the same.

The implications of allowing uranium mining in Virginia go far beyond Coles Hill. Nothing the UWG reports will make it easy for legislators to impose involuntary risk on informed citizens.

Katie Whitehead, a Pittsylvania native and resident, worked in the Virginia Division of Legislative Services as information officer for the Uranium Administrative Group in 1983. Contact her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 434-432-9643.

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