One of the single most valuable pieces of energy real estate in the United States is located a few miles outside of Chatham, Virginia, less than an hour's drive from my home. Millions of years ago, natural forces concentrated about 119 million pounds of uranium in a relatively small volume of what is now a cow pasture. That is enough raw material to supply all of the nuclear power plants in the United States with all of their fuel needs for a little more than two years. If valued at today's suppressed, post-Fukushima market price, the deposit is worth about $7 billion.
Unfortunately for the people who own the property and for the potential employees in the area where the deposit is located, it is currently illegal in Virginia to mine for uranium. The good news is that the moratorium on uranium mining is on the agenda for this year's legislative session. The legislators will not be making a decision in a vacuum; there have been a number of carefully conducted studies performed during the past 18-24 months that provide valid scientific and economic information. Not surprisingly, there are also a number of groups that are actively pushing their own views of the situation.
Much of the rhetoric produced by the mining opponents has been unscientific storytelling aimed at spreading irrational fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The opponents have attempted to make the case that communities located dozens of miles away from a modern uranium mine are at risk of their water being contaminated with materials that harm their health. They have claimed that an underground mine would produce excessive noise, that a mine using rather mild solvents like carbonated water would produce noxious odors, and that a uranium mine extracting and shipping approximately 2,000 tons of metal per year would put an unmanageable burden on local roads.
It has been disturbing to read that communities full of people who should know better have decided to strongly oppose the uranium mine. Several cities and towns in the Hampton Roads area, which is home to a nuclear shipbuilding yard, several nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, more than half a dozen nuclear-powered submarines, and the two-unit Surry nuclear power station have decided that a well-regulated uranium mine located a few hundred miles away is an unacceptable risk.
One of the more frustrating arguments that the opposition has recently started to make is that hosting a uranium mine would lower property values for people living many miles from the site because of the supposed stigma that would be associated with the mine. The only possible reason for a widespread stigma that reduces property values is the negative public relations effort being conducted by the people opposed to the mine.
It is an argument that is almost as convoluted as the notion that a technology is "too controversial" to develop-when looking at the topic from the point of view of the very groups that have created the controversy.
On Sunday, January 13, 2013, the Roanoke Times published an op-ed titled Democrats should embrace uranium mining that was purposely aimed at breaking down barriers between the traditional factions associated with nuclear energy decision making.
Andrea Jennetta, who publishes Fuel Cycle Week and recently began blogging at I Dig U Mining, and I collaborated on that piece because we both understand the science, recognize the exceedingly low risk, and are well aware of the benefits of using uranium as a power plant fuel compared to using coal, oil, and natural gas.
We described the environmental benefits, the economic benefits, and the natural fit between uranium mining and Virginia's history of nuclear energy enterprises. The state has been home to nuclear fuel manufacturing facilities for about 50 years, it hosts four commercial nuclear reactors, provides the technical headquarters for two nuclear plant design organizations, and supplies excellent educational institutions. Andrea and I know that uranium mining can be done safely and we are convinced that there are few places in the world more capable of safely hosting a new production facility. Here is the conclusion of our op-ed:
We puzzle over why Virginia Democrats automatically reject the findings of several economic studies on uranium mining in Pittsylvania County. Each shows a measurable improvement in the local economy and the creation of hundreds of new family-wage jobs, high-tech skills and increased funding for math and science education as a result of allowing the mine to be developed.
At the end of the day, we are urging Virginia Democrats to end the moratorium on uranium mining in the commonwealth. In doing so, they will be taking a huge step toward creating the kind of communities in Southside that reflect Democratic values: fighting climate change, providing equitable opportunities, building strong public education systems and creating prosperity for all.
Of course, I would be personally energized if the Republican Party decided that they wanted to compete to see which party could be the most supportive of safe extract of uranium. After all, that fuel is one of the basic components of a technology that offers a terrific opportunity for human society to increase its prosperity while reducing its current production of billions of tons per year of waste gases that have no place to go other than into our common atmosphere.
Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.