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A one-year study intended to assess the statewide consequences of uranium mining in Virginia begins this week when a National Academy of Sciences panel convenes for two days in Washington, D.C.
The 13-member study committee has a broad charge to assess the implications of lifting a 1982 ban on uranium mining in Virginia. Its conclusions are due in December 2011, and will be key to any General Assembly deliberations to lift the ban.
Fueled by renewed U.S. interest in nuclear power, Virginia Uranium Inc. has proposed mining a 119 million-pound deposit in Southside Virginia, near the North Carolina border. The company estimates the uranium's value at anywhere from $7 billion to $10 billion.
The proposal has met fierce opposition from some local residents who fear the mining and milling of the ore will foul local farm fields and streams and water sources for localities as far away as Hampton Roads.
The provisional members of the study panel, some of who have been challenged because of their ties to mining or the nuclear-power industry, are meeting in Washington to hear from a lineup of government officials, according to an agenda for the Board on Earth Sciences, a division of the National Academy.
The study group is scheduled to hear from officials from the Department of Energy, on the national and global uranium market; the U.S. Geological Survey, on Virginia uranium deposits and various aspects of mining and milling; and the Environmental Protection Agency, on regulatory matters.
A spokeswoman for the academy, Jennifer Walsh, said the presentations will help guide the future meetings of the committee. The first Virginia meeting of the committee is scheduled for Danville in mid-December, after another round of meetings in November in Washington.
The $1.4 million study will examine the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety of uranium mining and processing.
Local studies are also planned, and Walsh said the findings could be submitted to the National Academy panel if they deal with issues "pertinent to this task."
The National Academy of Science produces approximately 200 reports each year on issues relating to science, engineering and medicine. The academy, established by Congress and approved by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, is involved in a dizzying array of research, including the cause of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, in addition to climate change, the Hubble space telescope and mine safety.
Much of the environmental criticism has focused on the wisdom of uranium mining in the Southeast, which is subject to tropical storms and hurricanes that churn up the coast and can turn inland. Most domestic uranium mining occurs in the arid West. They are fearful a powerful storm blowing through Virginia or North Carolina would scatter uranium tailings through the region and onto crops or into water supplies.
Tailings are the waste rock separated from the uranium ore in the milling process, which uses a chemical agent.
Jack Dunavant, chairman of the anti-uranium Southside Concerned Citizens, said he has little confidence in the National Academy study because Virginia Uranium is financing it.
"I think it's tainted from the get-go," he said. "The study, as far as I'm concerned, has no benefit."
Virginia Uranium has argued the Pittsylvania County mine will be good economically for the region and can be mined safely.
"Virginia Uranium has always supported an independent scientific evaluation on the development of a uranium mining and milling industry in Virginia," the company's project manager, Patrick Wales, said in an e-mail.
"Our internal work continues to substantiate that the Coles Hill project will help put Southside Virginia back to work, supplying over 300 jobs for local Virginians, while helping reduce the United States dependence on foreign energy sources," he wrote.
Despite the recession, Dunavant said he's not sold. He said a uranium mine would in fact scare off investment.
"What industry would chose to move to an area that has a uranium mine?" he said.