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Uranium’s no. 1 hurdle / August 08, 2012
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report concluded that Virginia would face “steep hurdles” if it removes the moratorium on uranium mining. Arguably the steepest hurdle is developing a culture of safety, in which both regulators and employees, as well as elected officials and corporate executives, give priority to protecting our health and resources.

The NAS asserted, “Standards contained in regulatory programs represent only a starting point … A culture in which worker and public health, protection of environmental resources, and preservation of ecologic resources are highly valued, and continuously assessed and strengthened, is the ultimate goal of a regulatory program.” (NAS, p. 221-2)

Governor McDonnell’s Uranium Working Group (UWG) is supposed to answer questions left unanswered by the NAS. According to Gov. McDonnell, “The goal of the work is to determine from scientific data and expert opinion whether uranium mining and milling can be properly regulated in Virginia so as to protect public health and safety and the environment.”

Scientific data and expert opinion offer, at best, a theoretical answer to the question. As the NAS reported, Virginians have no evidence from which to draw conclusions about the truly long-term impacts of storing uranium mine and mill waste that remains hazardous for many thousands of years or the shorter-term impacts on the region’s reputation and overall economy.

We need a more self-reflective question and an honest answer on the part of legislators and Virginia citizens. Are we willing to create and sustain a truly robust regulatory program? Are we willing to commit not only ourselves but also future generations to managing the risks that come with uranium development?

The NAS report states, “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.” (NAS, p. 222) Are we willing to invest in such a program? Year-after-year? Budget-after-budget? Election-after-election?

Protective regulations are often seen as unnecessary obstacles by investors, managers, supervisors, and even workers. Politicians routinely condemn regulations as job-killing and costly. At the July 9th public forum in Chatham a uranium-mining supporter told the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors that he thought uranium could be mined safely and added that he expected the industry to be over-regulated.

Creating a safety culture would require a well-conceived regulatory program with consistent funding and expert staff, but also education and training so that both industry employees and regulatory inspectors understand the need for and the value of regulations.

To build on the work of the NAS, the UWG must not just draft a regulatory framework, but also address the broader challenge of inspiring the safety culture that is essential to proper regulation. The cultural context is critical.

On July 5th an expert investigative panel reported that the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan “was a profoundly man-made disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.” The report said, “The accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and [the plant operator] Tepco;” and that “across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance.”

According to Reuters, “the report pointed to numerous missed opportunities to take steps to prevent the disaster, citing lobbying by the nuclear power companies as well as a ‘safety myth’ mindset that permeated the industry and the regulatory regime as among the reasons for the failure to be prepared.”

Science and technology weren’t the problem. The limiting factor was human nature.

It’s human nature to want a simple answer — even if it’s a myth: “Be happy. Don’t worry — it’s safe…” It’s human nature to forget all that’s required to reduce risk.

Whether or not the moratorium is removed, we would do well to create a safety culture. A uranium tailings cell failure is not the only threat to Virginia’s health and natural wealth.

If the moratorium ends, we should diligently avoid creating a safety myth. Safety is not a matter of fact; it cannot be established as a permanent condition. Mining and milling uranium and living with hazardous waste are inherently not safe. Science and technology can’t make them safe.

We are the responsible parties. We are the elephant in the room. And we need to ask ourselves if we’re wise and humble enough to look not just at the facts, but also at ourselves.

Whitehead is a native and resident of Pittsylvania County. Contact her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 434-432-9643.

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