Lifting uranium ban is only the first step

Hampton Roads Business Journal – November 21, 2012

Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia UraniumPatrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium

By Jared Council  jared.council@insidebiz.com

Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1982, and the fight to maintain or lift that is expected to make its way to the 2013 Virginia General Assembly.

Known as “yellowcake,” uranium is used in nuclear reactors and is one of the world’s most powerful sources of energy. But byproducts of the extracting process are potentially hazardous to the environment and human health.

Officials at Virginia Uranium, a company based in Pittsylvania County, are looking to tap into one of the world’s largest uranium deposits there, and they’ve been met by local and national voices of opposition citing concerns about uranium “tailings” contaminating water sources.

Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim and Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms are among the opponents, stating in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed piece that “it is in the best interests of our citizens to retain the ban on mining uranium.”

Virginia law says the moratorium shall remain in place “until a program for permitting uranium mining is established by statute.” The precursor to that may come on Dec. 1 when a multi-agency state panel commissioned by Gov. Bob McDonnell will release a draft of a “statutory and conceptual regulatory framework,” among other things. This Uranium Working Group will not make a recommendation for or against uranium mining, but its report is highly anticipated and should move moratorium considerations into their next phase.

The uranium deposit of interest is known as the Coles Hill deposit, which contains some 119 million pounds of uranium. Its project manager, Patrick Wales, spoke recently about the company’s plans.

How did your company come to be?

In 2006, a group of Southside Virginia farmers and longtime residents formed our company to explore the development of the Coles Hill uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County. These families were guided by a dream that the Coles Hill project would contribute to the long-sought economic revival of our region.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of this economic opportunity for the thousands of Southside residents who’ve seen their jobs disappear overseas and the hundreds of contractors and supply companies across Virginia who are struggling to survive. Our project will generate more than 1,000 jobs and $5 billion in economic activity across the commonwealth. And, these are highly skilled, good-paying jobs that cannot be shipped overseas and will enable workers and spinoff businesses to seriously invest in Virginia’s future.

The Coles and Bowen families who formed the company have actually lived and farmed at Coles Hill for more than 200 years. For them, this land is sacred. Responsible stewardship of the land is a deeply ingrained way of life for these families. That’s why instead of leasing Coles Hill to an outside mining company, they decided to form their own company to make sure this was done the right way in the best interests of their community. Those founding principles still guide our company today and will remain part of who we are for as long as we’re here.

So, what can 119 million pounds of uranium do?

First, it’s important to understand that uranium is the fuel that powers nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy provides about 20 percent of America’s electricity, and roughly 40 percent of Virginia’s. Nuclear is actually the largest electricity source in Virginia, even bigger than coal.

That being said, you’re correct. There is roughly 119 million pounds of uranium at Coles Hill. To put that in perspective, that is enough uranium to fuel all of Virginia’s nuclear reactors for 75 years. Now, on a national scale, the Coles Hill project would singlehandedly boost annual uranium production in the U.S. by more than 50 percent. That’s pretty significant, right?

For a country that imports more than 90 percent of our uranium from foreign countries, we think it makes sense, in terms of strengthening our economy and our energy security, for us to develop our own resources.

Talk about the state of the nuclear energy market today and what the Coles Hill deposit could potentially mean for energy and the economy in Virginia and the U.S.

Nuclear generates 20 percent of America’s electricity and about 40 percent of Virginia’s. And, nuclear is expanding across the U.S. and in rapidly growing economies like China, India and Southeast Asia.

So, why is nuclear energy so important?

First of all, it generates zero carbon emissions that cause global warming and none of the other harmful pollution associated with fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. That’s hugely important for our environment.

Second, nuclear is the most reliable source of electricity we have. In fact, nuclear can produce power more than 90 percent of the time, even more than coal, which produces power only about 70 to 80 percent of the time. That means that nuclear energy – more than any other source – is what keeps our homes, hospitals and factories running 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year.

But, why do we need the Coles Hill project? It’s simple. Today, the U.S. imports more than 90 percent of our uranium from foreign countries, and a lot of that comes from some pretty unreliable sources. We think it makes better sense to develop our own resources to create jobs and economic opportunities here in Virginia, rather than sending our money overseas to support workers and businesses in other countries.

It was almost a year ago when a National Academy of Sciences report concluded that Virginia faced “steep hurdles” to regulate uranium mining to ensure the protection of the environment and public health. What are your thoughts about that conclusion and what progress has been made with respect to safety since that report?

I think it has become pretty clear that that single phrase – “steep hurdles” – was entirely misinterpreted by the media, and in some cases, deliberately mischaracterized by mining opponents.

Based on comments made by several of the study panelists since the report was released, it’s clear they were simply stating the obvious, that Virginia has a lot of work and due diligence to do before it can allow uranium mining activity.

It’s going to take years to develop regulations for uranium mining in Virginia. We won’t see those regulations until 2015, at the earliest. Then there are environmental studies that won’t be finished until at least 2016.

And then, we have to apply for the numerous local, state and federal permits we’ll need for our project to move forward. Those applications won’t get submitted until 2016, and final decisions by the regulators won’t be made until 2018 or later.

So yes, we do have a lot of work to do. But, it’s important to recognize that the National Academy of Sciences was clear that if we do this hard work and adopt the best practices and regulations that have been effective in Canada, Australia and the western U.S., then we can absolutely do this safely.

Of all of the criticism you’ve heard about uranium mining and your company, what, if any, remarks do you believe are unwarranted or even outlandish?

Look, we don’t take the criticism personally. We fully understand this is a controversial issue and that people on both sides have very strongly held views. People are entitled to their views and to care about what’s going on in their community.

We respect people’s concerns about uranium mining and we take those concerns very seriously. Over the last several years, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to address people’s concerns in meaningful ways that make them more comfortable with our project and reassure them that we’re looking after their best interests and not just our own bottom line.

When it comes to protecting the environment and the health of our community, no one cares more than the people of Virginia Uranium. After all, we live in this community. We’re raising our families here. We all drink the same water and breathe the same air. So our commitment to the environment and public health goes way beyond just a professional obligation, it’s a deeply personal and moral commitment we’ve made to our neighbors and our families.

Some say the General Assembly seems poised to vote on how uranium mining is to be regulated, when the vote should address whether or not it should be allowed. What are your thoughts on this?

Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of misunderstanding about this, so I’m happy to try to clarify as best I can.

The moratorium on uranium mining is just a few lines in the statute that says that Virginia’s regulators cannot grant permits for uranium mining until regulations are in place. That’s it. That’s all it says.

So, for the General Assembly to lift the moratorium, all it has to do is tell Virginia’s regulators to develop a regulatory program for uranium mining. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Now, as for deciding how uranium mining will be regulated, those decisions will be made after the moratorium is lifted by the regulatory agencies, not the General Assembly. While the General Assembly may recommend certain guidelines for how those regulations should look, ultimately it is up to the regulators to develop them.

And, that’s the way it should be, right? It makes sense that politicians make the big decision on whether or not uranium mining should be allowed in Virginia, while letting the independent, nonpartisan technical experts decide the safest and most effective way to do it.

One final point I want to make is that lifting the moratorium in no way approves our project, nor does it give us permission to start mining. We’re more than five years away from those decisions being made by the regulators. Lifting the moratorium is only the first step in this process, not the last.

If your company is allowed to commence mining at Coles Hill, what’s the timeline before the industry sees yields? What’s next for Virginia Uranium if legislators uphold the moratorium or even prohibit uranium mining?

If the General Assembly lifts the moratorium next year, we are probably five to eight years away from receiving a single permit to begin mining at Coles Hill.

If the moratorium is lifted next year, state regulators will spend the next two years developing regulations and revising those regulations based on the input they hear from the public.

During that time and even a few years after, our company will be busy conducting environmental studies to measure baseline conditions at Coles Hill and show regulators how we will make sure the environment is fully protected. Those environmental studies won’t happen overnight, and if there is one thing we must get right, it’s protecting the environment. So, we’re going to take our time to make sure we get this right.

Once those studies are complete in 2016 – at the earliest – then we’ll begin the process of applying for the local, state and federal permits and licenses we will need to actually operate. By the time the regulatory agencies are in a position to either approve or deny our applications, we’re looking at 2018 or 2019 at the earliest.

So, the bottom line is that we have a very long way to go before our project gets under way. I won’t speculate on what happens if the moratorium remains in place. We are confident that Virginia’s leaders understand that we can do this safely and that they appreciate how important this is to Virginia’s economy and America’s energy security.

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