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COMMUNITY VOICE: Uranium mining: What exactly is it?

By Jordan Bagbey


I cannot claim to be an expert on uranium mining; however, I have researched the topic academically and feel qualified to at least discuss it. 

The following are excerpts from a university paper I wrote last year:

Uranium is an element that naturally occurs in trace amounts in soil, rock and in the Earth’s oceans. It is just as abundant as tin is in the environment. 

The element can be utilized in many different ways, but the main use for uranium is for fuel in nuclear power plants, where the element is enriched to the isotope U-235. 

Before uranium can be enriched and used as a fuel, it must be mined from the environment. Uranium mines operate in 20 countries, and 52 percent of that output comes from 10 mines in six countries, according to the World Nuclear Association. 

The top two countries mining uranium are Canada and Australia, with Canada accounting for 14 percent of the world’s production and Australia six percent. 

Mining for the element in most cases is no different than other kinds of mining. In fact, finding and mapping uranium deposits is easier than other elements and minerals because of its abundance.

Three different types of mining exist: open pit, underground and in-situ leach mining. Around 53 percent of the world’s uranium comes from open pit and underground mines, 41 percent from leach mining, and the other five percent is recovered in alternate ways. 

If the ore is close to the surface, miners perform open pit mining. This involves cutting into and removing rock above the ore, creating large pits and causing a big environmental impact due to a large area being exposed with no soil. This causes runoff problems. 

The benefit of open pit mining is natural ventilation; workers aren’t as exposed to the radiation when mining. 

When the ore lies deeper, underground shafts are called for. Underground tunnels also lessen the impact on the environment. The downside of underground mining is workers inside the shafts are in confined spaces and are exposed to possibly higher levels of radiation. Miners install ventilation systems to combat this danger. 

In-situ leach mining involves drilling chemicals into the ground that “leach” onto uranium in the surrounding rock and pulls it away. This mixture is then recovered with more processing. The mode of extraction can be dangerous, since the chemicals used can seep into groundwater, damaging the water supply that would take a long and expensive process to restore.

After the element is mined, it produces waste such as mill tailings that need to be contained, stored and maintained for centuries until they fully decay. If containment protocols are breached, the waste can be reintroduced back into the environment where it can contaminate the local air and groundwater.

Though nations like Canada and Australia are at the forefront of uranium mining, the debate in Southside Virginia rages on and is six years in the making regarding whether or not to develop the uranium deposit located at Cole’s Hill in Pittsylvania County. 

In 2007 Virginia Uranium Inc. began studying the area in case it could be developed into an underground mine. A moratorium exists in Virginia that bans the mining of uranium and has been in place since 1982. 

Groups such as Keep the Ban have formed to make sure Virginia Uranium cannot mine the deposit. Proponents argue that the health impact around the mine is too high. 

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the area’s drinking water would be at serious risk. They state that if an event, such as a hurricane, common to the area, prevented the containment of waste it could leak downstream to Lake Gaston, Virginia Beach’s primary water supply. If that was to occur the water could be contaminated for up to two years. They further state that the Roanoke/Staunton River is listed by American Rivers as one of the 10 most endangered rivers because of the uranium mining threat. Separately a contamination would also affect Kerr Lake, the primary drinking source for Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties. 

Keep the Ban also sees the economic impact as too volatile and will not diversify the area economy.

Virginia Uranium, however, sees it differently. They believe an underground mine in Pittsylvania County will produce over 1,000 jobs maintained over a 35-year span. 

Within that time they see the mine generating $5 billion in revenue for Virginia companies. According to them the waste produced would be “mixed with a cement-like substance and put back into the mine shafts and drifts, and the rest will be stored in heavily-monitored and regulated below-grade storage facilities.” 

Once mining ceases they would close the mine and reclaim the land, citing success of a mine in Puy de L’Ages, France being turned into a trout pond as their inspiration.

With the prospect of uranium mining so close to home in Virginia, every aspect needs to be considered. Currently, studies take place about the viability and impact of a mine. Many see uranium and nuclear power as a great and safe form of energy, but events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima make some balk at the idea. 

It is possible uranium mining creates jobs and generates money, but it is also possible that it won’t. It is possible to contain waste from the mine, but a failure to contain it can lead to severe consequences. It is possible to keep workers inside the mine safe, but it is also possible for workers to contract radiation poisoning and cancer. 

The more studies and reading done into uranium mining, the more it seems to be all up in the air, and when that happens, the status quo is kept. Right now the status quo for 30 years has been to keep the ban in place in Virginia, while other places in the world keep mining uranium.

Jordan Bagbey, an Alton resident, is a dual media studies/journalism and English major at Radford University.