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A Radiant Threat

Imagine… trading your safety, the region’s safety, and possibly the planet’s safety in exchange for an energy source that would yield just two years of power. Two years.

That energy source, in the form of a huge deposit in Southside Virginia, is uranium.

According to a piece from the big paper across the Potomac, a Virginian near retirement age owns a 200 acre spread that sits atop “what is thought to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States.” This gentleman, having reached the age at which we take a slower pace, said he’s decided to retire to the family farm that sits on the uranium, describing his decision thusly: “I could have sold the land and moved to Florida. But I … want to stay and do something good for the community, something good for the state.”

Consider that reserves of abundant coal (for which ‘clean’ alternatives may be possible) could fuel the nation more than 200 years into the future. In fact, the PBS Nightly Business Report recently commented, “The U.S. is considered the Saudi Arabia of coal,” because “at the current rate of usage, there is about a 230-year supply.”

Wind power is barely scratching the surface of its potential along the drafty Appalachians, mighty Sierras, the Great Plains and the Rockies. Add ever growing and less expensive solar cells, and the alternative sources of power appear monumental in scope.
But none is connected to corporate energy interests, the ones that have had this nation in a lock since Jimmy Carter lost the presidency and George W. Bush put Halliburton in charge of our future.

So, there sits among us Virginians this hunk of uranium, known to be the source of mankind’s undoing. And big money is thirsting for it.

That’s the quandary or devil’s bargain Virginia faces, as our elected officials decide whether or not to grant a permit to mine uranium — openly or underground — at the farm in Southside Chatham, just east of the Blue Ridge.

Setting aside this retiree’s motives (the uranium’s reported worth is $10 billion), let’s look at the facts the Governor and General Assembly should consider.

“As a naturally occurring mineral, uranium is relatively stable in the ground,” the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), with headquarters in Charlottesville, has reported. “When separated from rock and exposed to air and water, however, radiation is released into the environment.”

Additionally, nearly all the uranium mined for bomb making and power production has occurred in the arid West. The SELC notes, “There is no U.S. precedent for a large-scale uranium mine in a wet climate such as the Virginia Piedmont.”

What has been the experience of states from which uranium has been extracted?

The mines produced groundwater and surface water contamination and brought increased cases of cancer among miners and the public. Long after the mines shut down, non-useable ‘tailings’ — waste that build into huge piles — were subject to having their dust blown for miles, spreading radioactive and toxic materials such as radium and arsenic.

The Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City reported in 2001,
“America may have won the Cold War, but a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Utah is left with a toxic legacy that has killed and sickened untold thousands of uranium miners and mill workers, contaminated water supplies for generations to come, and infected an otherwise stunning red-rock landscape with millions of tons of radioactive mill tailings that will cost American taxpayers billions of dollars to remove and bury safely out of sight.”

In the face of an upcoming Assembly debate on whether this newly-found Virginia uranium should be mined, Delegate Clarke Hogan recently told Southside Concerned Citizens, “I never underestimate the ability of lobbyists” — Virginia Uranium having hired two lobbying firms — “to affect public policy.”

Hogan urged a vigorous opposition campaign, because those lobbyists are attempting to get approval for a ‘study’ to look into the safety of uranium mining in Virginia. If the lobbyists succeed in moving the study legislation out of an Assembly committee, Hogan concluded, “We won’t be able to stop it.”

Here we go again. Money, lots of it, is betting that you and I won’t notice. That all they’ll have to do is pour that money into the pockets or campaigns chests of legislators and the skids will be greased.

Keep on eye on this thing. Uranium mining is serious business, and a wrong decision, once made, could yield a Utah-like catastrophe.

Nick Penning is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington (Va.) Connection.

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