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McClellan: Virginia can live without uranium mines

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The 2013 Virginia General Assembly session convened on Wednesday. During this “short session,” we will amend the budget covering the current fiscal year and address thousands of bills covering a wide range of issues. These include the governor’s proposals to fund Virginia’s transportation needs and reform K-12 education as well as voting reform, expansion of Medicaid and gun safety.

One hotly contested issue is whether to lift the 30-year moratorium on uranium mining and milling in Virginia. In the late 1970s, a significant amount of uranium deposits were discovered at the Coles Hill farm in Pittsylvania County. A Canadian company made plans to mine the deposit, and secured leases on many other potential deposits throughout the Piedmont.

However, the state had no regulations to cover such an activity, and in 1982, the Virginia legislature enacted a ban on mining while a state commission studied the potential impacts of uranium production. When global uranium prices began to fall, interest in mining waned, no regulations were ever developed, and the ban remained in effect.

In late 2011, two state-sponsored studies were issued on the impacts of uranium mining to determine whether the socio-economic benefits of mining one of the largest deposits of uranium ore in the world outweigh the environmental, health and safety risks.

The National Academy of Science’s study concluded that if Virginia lifts the moratorium, “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and processing could be established in a way that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment.”

The study noted that there is limited experience in the United States, and none in Virginia, with modern underground and open-pit uranium processing. Unlike the western states that mine uranium, Virginia’s climate is prone to flooding and groundwater contamination.

Proponents of lifting the ban cite the need to expand nuclear energy capability, reduce our dependence on foreign fuel, and the estimated 1,000 jobs uranium mining will bring to Southern Virginia.

We can certainly expand nuclear energy capacity without the Cole’s Hill uranium: Existing, known global uranium reserves provide more than a 50-year supply, and we have the technology to develop nuclear facilities powered by recycling nuclear waste. As for the jobs argument, the views of the citizens, businesses leaders, and elected officials in the region are instructive.

A majority of the people in Southern Virginia have expressed opposition to lifting the ban, including the area’s legislators, local governments and the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce (in a column on today’s Commentary front), concluding that the potential risks far outweigh the potential and yet unknown rewards.

These risks include the health impacts of exposure to uranium, contamination of drinking water from Pittsylvania County to Virginia Beach and negative impacts on the region’s existing businesses, property values and ability to attract, retain and grow jobs.

The negative impacts from uranium mining and milling will far outlast the actual operation of the mine. The waste product of uranium mining, known as “tailings,” retains significant amounts of uranium as well as by-products, such as radium and thorium, heavy metals including lead, arsenic, and mercury, and other toxic materials. The Coles Hill site is estimated to produce at least 28 million tons of uranium waste, which will remain radioactive for thousands of years and need to be contained on-site indefinitely.

Failure of the waste storage facility could result in the contamination of local groundwater sources and downstream drinking water sources for more than 1.9 million people in Halifax, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake and North Carolina. The regulatory framework to govern the process could cost up to $5 million annually.

This issue is not limited to Southern Virginia, as there are concerns that the ban will be lifted statewide — in addition to Coles Hill, uranium deposits have been identified in the Piedmont region and water basins such as the Occoquan. Nor is the impact of the mining and storage of uranium in Coles Hill restricted to the immediate geographic area.

For these reasons, the Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Farm Bureau, the Fairfax and Fauquier Water Authorities, environmental organizations, and local governments from practically every community downstream from the proposed site, from Halifax to Virginia Beach, and the entire Roanoke River Basin community, all oppose lifting the ban. Even Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, recently announced his opposition to lifting the ban.

Last week, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission endorsed a proposal by Sen. John Watkins to require the state to draft uranium-mining regulations. This essentially lifts the ban. However, Senator Watkins has stated his bill will allow mining only at the Coles Hill site. Only time will tell if this is enough to overcome significant opposition to the bill.

On this and many other issues, citizen input will be important to the legislative process. To facilitate that input, Del. Chris Peace, Sens. Donald McEachin, Ryan McDougal and I look forward to providing in-depth discussions on the issues before the General Assembly over the coming weeks.

Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, represents the 71st District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact her at


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