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Deep underground the rolling foothills of Appalachia in Southwest Virginia lies a trove of uranium deposits.  These deposits have remained untouched for a few billion years, but high metal prices and high unemployment rates have renewed interest in the possibility of mining the uranium for use in area nuclear power plants.  The Commonwealth of Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining for 30 years.  But in 2007, two families living near Virginia’s only economically viable uranium deposit in Coles Hill formed Virginia Uranium, Inc. to begin exploring the possibility of exploiting this resource.

The moratorium has left a dearth of hard rock mining technical expertise in the Commonwealth.  For this reason, Virginia called in the National Research Council to report on scientific, environmental, public health, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining to help inform the Virginia legislature. 

The report is very good.  It acknowledges that which any nonscientist or policy wonk already knows.  After 30 years, the Commonwealth has nothing even approaching the kind of regulatory regime in place to ensure anything other than a Wild West-like free for all that lifting the moratorium would create.  This has done little to muffle talk in Richmond about introducing a bill to lift the moratorium.  But notwithstanding a large lobbying effort by Virginia Uranium, Inc., Governor Bob McDonnell announced last week that the moratorium will remain while they conduct further study.

This is clearly a good move.  It is important to finish studying the uranium potential in Virginia before the regulators take a look toward new rules.  In particular, we need a site-specific evaluation of the geological and hydrological conditions near the Coles Hill site.  Uranium mining is unique from some other forms of hard rock mining in its dangerous potential to contaminate the environment with radioactive material.  Southwest Virginia has heavy rains and the entire area is dangerously close to the Atlantic Ocean where hurricane force winds batter the coast each fall.

Kudos to Governor McDonnell.  My worry was he would go the way of Ohio’s governor, John Kasich.  After all but declaring the Utica shale play a panacea for all of the Buckeye state’s economic woes, his Department of Natural Resources abruptly stopped all fracking after it was linked to earthquakes.

Rather than rush ahead with risky activities that could harm the environment and public health, Virginia should take the significant time they need to perform the necessary comprehensive technical and health studies before beginning the process of designing the regulations they need. The horse goes before the cart.

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