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Loupassi: Don’t lift uranium mining ban; risks outweigh supposed benefits

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Posted: Friday, January 25, 2013 12:00 am

Legislation is now before the General Assembly to remove the ban on mining uranium. I do not believe it is in the best interests of the commonwealth and its citizens to remove the ban.

When the costs of mining uranium are weighed against the benefits, the decision is clear.

Many proponents of uranium mining allege that a refusal by the assembly to allow mining might somehow be a deprivation of private property rights. This analysis ignores the good neighbors of the Coles property, many of whom have owned family property for hundreds of years.

Should not their property rights be protected and respected? What about the devaluation of their property values and the effects on property owners who are downstream from the site? It is clear to me that local neighbors, who do not want a hazardous waste site next to them, have property rights that deserve protection.

Arguments relative to energy independence are also unpersuasive. The market for any uranium mined in Virginia is not Virginia, or even the United States, alone. Uranium is like all other commodities — coal, natural gas, oil — and is sold on a global market.

In most cases, uranium is traded through contracts negotiated between a buyer and seller. Pricing can be as simple as a fixed price, or based on various reference prices with economic corrections built in. Nuclear energy producers will purchase uranium at the best price, not because it is produced in a particular location.

I have heard no outcry from the commonwealth’s chief energy suppliers that this bill is either needed or required. Additionally, this is not oil; most of the uranium imported into the United States is provided by two of America’s best allies and trading partners — Canada and Australia — and suggestions of harm to America’s energy independence if uranium is not mined in Virginia is unpersuasive.

The anticipated economic benefits of the proposed mining operation are speculative. The operation of uranium mining is price-dependent. When prices are high, mines flourish. When prices drop, uranium mines close and uranium miners lose their jobs. During the Cold War, demand for uranium reached an all-time high during the nuclear proliferation era. That high demand didn’t last. The decline in the need for uranium at the end of the Cold War, paired with the discovery of a higher grade of uranium in Australia and Canada, created a drop in the price and the closure of mines and mills throughout the United States.

In 2001, there were only three operating mines in the United States. In 2007, with the announcement that Japan, Germany and France would begin phasing out the use of nuclear energy, uranium prices fell precipitously and mines closed. The “Boom to Bust to Boom to Bust” cycle is well-documented in the uranium mining industry, and has shown amazing consistency over the past 25 years.

The economic consequences for the local region in the event of a long-term price-driven production disruption cannot be ignored, particularly when local economic development professionals have openly suggested that the stigma of uranium mining and milling could have a chilling effect on other kinds of business recruitment for the region.

Environmental concerns are not to be ignored. The property in question is within two miles of 250 privately owned artesian wells. The Coles property is drained by Mill Creek, which empties to the Kerr Lake Reservoir, the second largest freshwater reservoir in the United States and supplies water to nearly 1.2 million people.

Finally, there is almost unanimous opposition among my colleagues in the House of Delegates and the Senate who represent the people in southern Virginia to removing the ban on uranium mining. It is revealing that the people who allegedly stand to gain the most economically from lifting the ban have expressed the greatest concern about the financial rewards promised by uranium mining. These leaders have reached the conclusion that supposed economic benefits do not outweigh the health, safety and economic risks that they are being asked to take.

Traditional local businesspeople and organizations in the region — such as the Danville/Pittsylvania Chamber of Commerce and the Halifax Chamber of Commerce — have come out in strong opposition to removing the ban on uranium mining. Our state’s chief jobs creation officer, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, has recently announced his belief that the state’s ban on uranium mining and milling must remain in place. Virtually every jurisdiction from Danville to the Atlantic Ocean has enacted a resolution in support of keeping the ban.

As I weigh the costs versus the benefits of uranium mining, I believe the risks of economic speculation, environmental concerns and the adverse affects on local property owners far outweigh the benefits cited by the bill’s proponents. It is my intention to oppose this legislation and I will work in a bipartisan way to defeat the lifting of the ban on uranium mining.

G. Manoli Loupassi represents the 68 th District – the city of Richmond and the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield – in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact him at delMLoupassi@house.virginia.gov.

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