Expert Report

Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific, Technical, Environmental, Human Health and Safety, and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium Mining and Processing in Virginia (2011)

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Report in Brief >>

A range of health and environmental issues and related risks are important considerations as Virginia deliberates on whether to rescind its almost 30-year moratorium on mining uranium. Although there are internationally accepted best practices to mitigate most of these risks, there are still steep hurdles to be surmounted before mining and processing could take place within a regulatory setting that appropriately protects workers, the public, and the environment.

Key Messages

  • Of the sites in Virginia explored so far, only the Coles Hill uranium deposit appears to have the potential to be economically viable. Extensive site-specific tests would be required to determine the most appropriate mining and processing methods for each uranium deposit. Geological exploration carried out to date indicates that underground mining or open-pit mining are the probable methods of extraction for uranium deposits in Virginia.
  • Protracted exposure of workers in uranium mining and processing facilities to radon decay products generally would be expected to represent the greatest radiation-related health risk. Exposure to radon is associated with lung cancer, a link that has been most clearly established in uranium miners exposed to radon. Cigarette smoking increases the risk.
  • Other potential health risks for mine workers apply to any type of hard rock mining or other large-scale industrial or construction activity. The inhalation of silica dust and diesel exhaust, to which miners in general can be exposed, increases the risk of lung cancer and silicosis.
  • Off-site releases of radionuclides could present some risk of radiation exposure to the general public, depending on how the release occurred and the density of the nearby population.
  • Uranium tailings, the solid or semi-solid waste left after processing, present potential sources of radioactive contamination for thousands of years. Modern tailings management facilities are designed to prevent the release of radioactive contaminants for at least 200 years, but longer-term monitoring results from modern tailings facilities are not yet available.
  • Virginia is susceptible to extreme natural events, including heavy precipitation and earthquakes, and any uranium mining and/or processing facility would need to take the possibility of such events into consideration during planning.
  • Three over-arching best practices should be guiding principles if uranium mining were to be permitted: the need to plan at the outset of the project for the complete life cycle of mining, processing, and reclamation; the need to engage and retain qualified experts familiar with internationally accepted best practices for all aspects of a project; and the need to encourage meaningful and timely public participation throughout the life cycle of a project, beginning at the earliest stages.
  • At a more specific level, there are numerous internationally accepted best practices that would contribute to operational and regulatory planning for uranium mining in Virginia. These cover the health, environmental, and regulatory impacts of uranium mining.