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The Associated Press August 27, 2010, 4:50PM ET

Questions raised about Va. uranium study members

As an independent scientific panel is assembled to study the risks of uranium mining in Virginia, environmental groups are questioning whether some of its provisional members can be impartial because of their ties to the nuclear power industry or mining interests.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, for instance, objects to Henry A. Schnell, who is with the mining business unit of Areva, the French-owned nuclear services company. The company is the world's largest producer of uranium, primarily in Canada, Africa and Eastern Europe.

"Mr. Schnell, as an employee with the industry, clearly has a financial interest in the matter and as such presents a conflict of interest that could impair his objectivity," the SELC wrote in a letter to a division of the National Academy of Sciences.

Areva did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.

The environmental law center offered praise for several other provisional members of the 13-member committee, as did other organizations that had specific objections to the committee's makeup.

Clean Water Action, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Southside water protection agencies also raised questions about members who have ties to the mining industry. Some also sought to broaden the expertise of the study panel to include an expert in hydrology.

The membership of the National Research Council committee has been approved by the National Academy of Sciences but members are still subject to review before their appointments are finalized, said Jennifer A. Walsh, a spokeswoman for the National Academy of Sciences.

The review, she said, would look into possible conflicts of committee members. The committee has not scheduled its first meeting.

The study will examine the scientific, technical, environmental and human health risks of uranium mining, milling and processing at a rich deposit in Pittsylvania County. Its findings are due in 2011. Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1982. Before uranium can be mined in Virginia, the General Assembly would have to lift the ban.

Virginia Uranium Inc. has proposed tapping the 119-million pound Southside deposit located beneath several hundred acres it owns in Chatham, near the North Carolina border. The company has estimated the mine's value at anywhere from $7 billion to $10 billion.

Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, said mining opponents have been selective in objecting to the committee's members. They didn't complain about members who might have an environmental background, for instance, he said.

Wales said conflicting viewpoints ultimately will strengthen the committee's findings.

"We're encouraged the entire process is moving forward," he added.

The U.S. imports approximately 90 percent of the uranium used in domestic nuclear power plants, Virginia Uranium estimates. With the construction of 56 reactors under way around the world and the Obama administration supporting the development of domestic nuclear power plants, demand for fuel is growing.

That is one aspect of uranium mining the study committee will examine: global and national uranium market trends.

Environmental groups have cautioned that uranium milling will contaminate crops and drinking water supplies. Milling involves using a chemical agent to extract uranium from mined ore.

The city of Virginia Beach has launched its own study of the possible impact on its drinking water supplies if a storm or heavy rain washed away waste millings from the mine.

About a dozen uranium mines are operating in the U.S., primarily in the West. Globally, the largest producers are Africa, Australia, Canada and Eastern European countries.

The Danville Regional Foundation is considering proposals from two research groups to assess the uranium mining in the Dan River Region. That study is intended to look at the regional impact of waste management and local economies.

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