The question of whether uranium mining and processing1 should be permitted in the Commonwealth of Virginia has aroused strong emotions and reactions, both in favor and opposed. Proponents and opponents in this discussion provided extensive information and briefings to the committee established by the National Research Council (NRC) to provide independent, expert advice to inform decisions about the future of uranium mining in the Commonwealth of Virginia, as it accepted input and deliberated on the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining and processing. This committee was specifically charged NOT to make recommendations about whether or not uranium mining should be permitted, and site-specific assessments of individual uranium deposits and occurrences in Virginia were also excluded. Rather, the committee was charged to provide an independent scientific perspective to inform the discussion, as input to those who will make and implement public policy on behalf of the community.
The Coles Hill uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County, south central Virginia, was discovered in 1978 and explored in the 1980s by the Marline Uranium Corporation.
1The committee uses “processing” throughout the report to encompass all aspects of the process steps that are undertaken to transform raw material extracted from the ground into a granular uranium concentrate product—dominantly U3O8 “yellowcake.” These steps are sometimes referred to as uranium “milling,” although strictly speaking, milling is just one component of several processing steps. Subsequent steps in the nuclear fuel cycle—refining and conversion of the concentrated uranium into uranium dioxide (UO2) or gaseous uranium hexafluoride (UF6), enrichment, and ultimately fuel manufacture—are not considered in this report.
In 1982, the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted a moratorium on uranium mining, requiring that additional regulations specific to uranium mining be developed before the Commonwealth could permit uranium mining. Because of a combination of low uranium prices at the time and the moratorium, the deposit at Coles Hill was never mined and the leasing rights were returned to the landowner. Following an increase in uranium prices after 2005, interest in the Coles Hill deposit returned and in 2007 the two families living on and near the deposit formed a company, Virginia Uranium, Inc. The company initiated new exploration of Coles Hill, including new data acquisition and analysis of historical data. Coincident with this new exploration, the Virginia General Assembly, in its 2008 legislative session, began to discuss the potential to establish a Virginia Uranium Mining Commission as an advisory commission in the executive branch of the state government. In November 2008, the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, established within the legislative branch of the state government, created a Uranium Mining Subcommission to examine the issues related to uranium mining in the Commonwealth and specifically at Coles Hill. The Subcommission expressed interest in a broader study that would encompass the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, and developed a draft statement of task with this broader mandate with input from the NRC. This statement of task was discussed in a public meeting of the Subcommission on May 21, 2009, and the Subcommission voted in favor of the statement of task as the framework for an NRC study.
On August 20, 2009, Delegate Kilgore, of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, sent a request to conduct the study to the National Research Council (Appendix A). Additional letters supporting this request were received from U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb and from Governor Kaine. In addition to the draft statement of task, the letter from Del. Kilgore indicated that the study would be funded under a contract with the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, directed by Dr. Michael Karmis, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Funding was provided to Virginia Tech by Virginia Uranium, Inc. Committee members serve pro bono, and are not compensated for the considerable time that they devote to committee activities.
The definitions of mining, processing, reclamation, and long-term stewardship—central to many elements of this report—are presented for each of the life-cycle elements:
Mining: Mining includes all the processes by which uranium ore is removed from the ground. There are three types of uranium mining—open-pit mining, underground mining, and in situ leaching/in situ recovery (ISL/ISR). ISL/ISR is also considered to be a processing activity, which occurs in place beneath the Earth’s surface. It is possible that some combination of open-pit and underground
mining may be applicable for a single uranium ore deposit. Mining creates several categories of waste, including overburden (the rock that is removed prior to ore recovery that is not processed because of low or negligible recoverable uranium), and wastewater. Mined ore must be transported to a processing facility, usually by truck or conveyor.
Processing: Processing refers to all the steps that follow mining and end with the production of yellowcake, the uranium oxide product (U3O8) that is the raw material used for nuclear fuel fabrication. Processing (sometimes referred to as milling) includes ore crushing, grinding, leaching, and uranium recovery from the leached solution. Leaching uses either acidic (usually sulfuric acid) or basic (e.g., sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate) solutions. Separation of the uranium from the leached solution—to obtain yellowcake that can be shipped—requires solution purification, precipitation, dewatering, drying, and packaging. During processing, several waste streams are created. These include tailings (the solid materials that remain after leaching) and excess process water.
Reclamation: Reclamation refers to the activities that occur after mining has been completed for a particular area, and includes actions to prepare the mining site and processing facility for eventual reuse for other purposes after the license to mine and process uranium is terminated. Reclamation may include demolition of buildings and other facilities, decontamination and cleanup, and on-site and/or off-site waste disposal.
Long-term stewardship: For mines and processing facilities on federal and state land, the government retains ownership throughout the operation, leasing or permitting use of the land for mineral extraction and processing. After reclamation and other closure/postclosure requirements are met, the government may enforce institutional controls or other restrictions to ensure maintenance and long-term protection of the environment and public health. For operations on private land, state and federal regulations define requirements for the operator or permittee for closure, reclamation, and postclosure protection. After mining and processing have stopped and the site has been reclaimed, a large volume of low-activity tailings usually remains. In that case, long-term stewardship may include operation and maintenance of water treatment systems or other cleanup technologies. Signage and barriers to keep people from being exposed to remaining environmental hazards may be required. Uranium processing facility tailings impoundments require management in perpetuity, with ownership of the area of the impoundment transferred to the state or federal government.
The National Research Council appointed a committee with broad expertise (Appendix B), encompassing the diverse uranium mining and processing, worker and public health, environmental protection, and regulatory aspects included in the statement of task. The committee met seven times, in Washington, D.C.,
in October and November 2010; in Danville, Virginia, in December 2010; in Richmond, Virginia, in February 2011; in Boulder, Colorado, in March, 2011; in northeastern Saskatchewan (including mine and processing site visits) and Saskatoon, Canada, in June 2011; and in Irvine, California, in September 2011. All except the last of these meetings included time set aside for community input and commentary, including evening “town hall”-style meetings associated with the Danville and Richmond meetings. This challenging schedule was designed to allow the committee to receive briefings regarding the scientific and technical aspects of its charge; to receive input from individuals and community organizations; to deliberate on its findings; and to write its report, all within the tight time constraint of the requirement that the report should be available to inform the Commonwealth of Virginia legislature during its 2011-2012 session.
Statement of Task
Uranium mining in the Commonwealth of Virginia has been prohibited since 1982 by a state moratorium, although approval for restricted uranium exploration in the state was granted in 2007. A National Research Council study will examine the scientific, technical, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of uranium mining, milling, and processing as they relate to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the purpose of assisting the Commonwealth to determine whether uranium mining, milling, and processing can be undertaken in a manner that safeguards the environment, natural and historic resources, agricultural lands, and the health and well-being of its citizens. In particular, the study will:
(1) Assess the potential short- and long-term occupational and public health and safety considerations from uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation, including the potential human health risks from exposure to “daughter” products of radioactive decay of uranium.
(2) Review global and national uranium market trends.
(3) Identify and briefly describe the main types of uranium deposits worldwide including, for example, geologic characteristics, mining operations, and best practices.
(4) Analyze the impact of uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation operations on public health, safety, and the environment at sites with comparable geologic, hydrologic, climatic, and population characteristics to those found in the Commonwealth. Such analysis shall describe any available mitigating measures to reduce or eliminate the negative impacts from uranium operations.
(5) Review the geologic, environmental, geographic, climatic, and cultural settings and exploration status of uranium resources in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The committee has organized its report in terms of broad topics (e.g., health impacts, environmental impacts) rather than attempting to align the report structure with the numerous elements of the statement of task shown in Box 1.1. The report structure is as follows:
• Chapter 2 briefly describes the physical and social context in which uranium mining and processing might occur—the geological and geographic setting, the environmental and climatic characteristics, and the overarching social setting. This chapter does not, however, address the socioeconomic effects that uranium mining and processing might have on affected communities, because such considerations are beyond the committee’s purview.
(6) Review the primary technical options and best practices approaches for uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation that might be applicable within the Commonwealth of Virginia, including discussion of improvements made since 1980 in the design, construction, and monitoring of tailings impoundments (“cells”).
(7) Review the state and federal regulatory framework for uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation.
(8) Review federal requirements for secure handling of uranium materials, including personnel, transportation, site security, and material control and accountability.
(9) Identify the issues that may need to be considered regarding the quality and quantity of groundwater and surface water, and the quality of soil and air from uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation. As relevant, water and waste management and severe weather effects or other stochastic events may also be considered.
(10) Assess the potential ecosystem issues for uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation.
(11) Identify baseline data and approaches necessary to monitor environmental and human impacts associated with uranium mining, milling, processing, and reclamation.
(12) Provide a nontechnical summary of the report for public education purposes (for example, health and safety issues, inspection and enforcement, community right-to-know, emergency planning).
By addressing these questions, the study will provide independent, expert advice that can be used to inform decisions about the future of uranium mining in the Commonwealth of Virginia; however, the study will not make recommendations about whether or not uranium mining should be permitted nor will the study include site-specific assessments.
• Chapter 3 outlines the global distribution of uranium deposits, describes the existing understanding of potential deposits in Virginia, and outlines the prospectivity status of such deposits. This chapter also provides a general overview of uranium reserves, markets, and prices.
• Chapter 4 describes technical aspects of uranium mining, processing, and reclamation as they might be applied in Virginia, covering the full range from initiation of mining through to decommissioning and legacy management. Although many of the techniques described in this chapter apply to hard-rock mining in general, there is specific focus on aspects that are uranium-specific. Note that surface and underground mining techniques are primarily dealt with in this chapter—and in the report in general—with ISL/ISR mining of uranium only briefly described for completeness, because it is unlikely to be applicable in Virginia as a consequence of the particular geological characteristics of the Commonwealth.
• Chapter 5 outlines adverse human health effects that can potentially arise from uranium mining and processing—encompassing both occupational health and safety and broader public health perspectives—as well as brief descriptions of potential human health effects that are not specific to uranium mining. Best practices that might be applied to address and mitigate some of the potential health effects are discussed in Chapter 8.
• Chapter 6 outlines adverse environmental effects that can arise from uranium mining and processing—potential air, water, soil, and ecosystem impacts beyond the immediate borders of a uranium mining and processing facility.
• Chapter 7 describes the existing federal and Virginia legal environment, encompassing laws, regulations, and oversight through the full range from mining and processing, through site reclamation, to long-term stewardship.
This task statement requires that the committee consider the entire Commonwealth of Virginia in its assessment and analysis. However, as outlined in Chapter 3, the uranium deposit at Coles Hill is the only known potentially economically viable uranium resource in Virginia. Consequently, although the characteristics of all of Virginia are examined in the descriptive elements of this report, there is slightly greater focus on the southern part of Virginia in the vicinity of Coles Hill. In addition, the committee recognized that some of the potential effects of uranium mining and processing—both negative and positive—would inevitably extend across state borders; however, the statement of task clearly restricts the committee’s focus to Virginia alone and therefore such potential effects were not explicitly considered, nor was input from citizens and interest groups in adjacent states sought.