The Virginia Uranium Working Group held its final public meeting before turning their report in to the Governor on November 27, 2012. The meeting was held in a modest sized room at the Virginia Science Museum in a room where the photos on the wall celebrated Virginia’s railway heritage. One of the two large photos on the front wall depicted a smoke belching steam engine; in one of those head slapping moments, I now wish I had pointed to the photo during my brief comment towards the end of the evening.
There was a crowd large enough to fill the room to overflowing. However, as one of the speakers pointed out, that meant that attendance was approximately 200 people at a meeting held in a city with a population of 200,000 in state with a population that exceeds 8,000,000. One man proudly delivered a packet of 16,000 signed petitions gathered in churches, at farmer’s markets, and at affinity group meetings. Again, please remember the context – that is 16,000 signed petitions in a state with 8,000,000 energy consuming residents.
The groups who have been organizing during the past couple of years to oppose any action to lift the current moratorium on uranium mining were well represented. They were easy to pick out; most of them were sporting day glow green tee shirts with the words “Keep the Ban” emblazoned on the front. Many of them were carrying printed signs with city names on them. During the comment period, some of them claimed to be the representative of the city on their sign – one grey beard wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans claimed to be the unofficial representative of the city of Norfolk.
I spent some time talking to that particular member of the group opposing uranium mining. He had quite a litany of talking points ranging from “what do you do with the waste” to “uranium prices are falling, what happens if the mine goes out of business” to “what about the Navajos and their health problems from uranium mining?”
He got quite flustered as I explained that used nuclear fuel could be recycled – he told me he did not just fall off of a turnip truck but he had never heard that it was possible to recycle used nuclear fuel. He wondered why it was not being done; my response about the fact that it is being done in France but that the industry had been shutdown by presidential decree in the US caused a little consternation. I also pointed out that 70,000 tons is not a lot of material; it could fit on a single football field without covering the goal posts.
He really did not like my explanation of how early uranium miners worked under much less healthy conditions in unventilated mines where they often smoked heavily while underground – deeply ingesting an especially deadly mixture of tobacco smoke, uranium impregnated rock dust, radon, and silica. His response was, “So now you are blaming the victims?”
While waiting for the meeting to start, I engaged in several conversations with the people sitting nearby. One was a retired industrial hygienist who had actually designed some of the instruments used to measure radiation for baseline background studies of the area before the North Anna Nuclear Power station was built. He had a deep knowledge of the fact that radiation is ubiquitous but several experiences during his career had made him very cautious about any industrial use.
At one point he was called in as a consultant to help solve a problem with large batches of semiconductor chips that were mysteriously failing after having been rigorously tested. It turned out that the manufacturer had used a phosphorous ingredient from a source that contained a higher than average amount of either uranium or thorium. The occasional alpha particle emissions from the decay of that long lived material caused unpredictable transistor failure, especially as the chips became more and more densely packed.
I pointed out the fact that biological organisms evolved in a radioactive world and had something that no chip every had – cellular repair mechanisms. He was pretty firmly convinced, however, that those repair mechanisms were not dependable and that any effect from an internal alpha emitter was going to be negative for the individual, even if it might be good for the species as a whole.
Then I turned around to engage in a very pleasant conversation with a woman wearing a day glow tee shirt. She was actually quite curious about learning more about nuclear energy and uranium mining. It turned out that we shared some common history; we both had spent a lot of time in Charleston, SC during the time when the Navy still had a nuclear submarine base there. She also had a neighbor whose son was a nuclear submariner; she and her husband had been interviewed by the NCIS agents that performed his background check and she had heard from her neighbor about the submarine force’s high standards.
Her main concern about uranium mining was to ensure proper regulation and enforcement; I think she felt a lot better about the prospects for the safe operation of the mine after she learned about the way that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides oversight. She encouraged me to mention that during my comment. She also seemed to be swayed a bit by my description of the way that nuclear professionals are engrained with a safety culture that empowers even the lowest ranking person to report concerns and to have those concerns addressed with respect.
The people who supported nuclear energy were mostly recognizable by their suits, sports coats or the small stickers that were handed out in the lobby before the meeting.
I managed to stand out because I remembered to bring my dark green tee shirt with a small American Nuclear Society logo on the left front of the shirt and a large printed slogan on the back that remains one of my favorites: “Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy”. It covered my button-down shirt and dress slacks rather nicely; it also helped break down a few barriers.
Not only was the shirt a great conversation piece, but having the slogan on the back turned out to be fortuitous because the comment period was conceived as a chance to share our thoughts with the working group. The podium was thus set up so that speakers had their back to the crowd in order to speak into a fixed microphone. As luck would have it, the speaker immediately before me loosened the clamp enough so that the moderator had to spend a few minutes fixing it. That gave me plenty of time to show of my shirt to the audience.
Several people later approached me with the question “what kind of environmentalist are you if you support nuclear energy?” My answer generally included some or all of the following, depending on the reaction of the questioner.
“I am the kind of environmentalist who likes clean air, clean water and unspoiled vistas. I am the kind that believes that energy is necessary, and should be produced using the best available technology which requires the least amount of material and effort over its life. I am the kind of environmentalist who really likes an energy source that is clean enough to run inside a submarine.” Some of the people liked that response and stayed to talk for a while longer, others, mostly people in day glow green tee shirts scampered away from the facts as fast as they could.
Dr. Sama Bilbao y Leon from Virginia Commonwealth University was the last speaker. She is an old friend and the person who convinced me that Atomic Energy Insights needed to be a web publication. She even did the original HTML coding to make that happen – in November 1995. It was great to catch up with her after the meeting. It was also energizing to spend some time talking with the crowd of students that she encouraged to attend the meeting.
Though supporters were probably outnumbered by 2 or 3 to one at this particular meeting, I think we did a good job in sharing sound information about the high reward to risk ratio associated with mining the Coles Hill uranium deposit. That resource, large enough to add about 50% to the US’s current annual uranium production and to last for at least a full generation of employees, is located in the middle of a large tract of privately owned land. The deposit is in low population, slow-economy area of a state endowed with a high concentration of nuclear knowledge. Preventing its extraction would be a blow against freedom, property rights and energy abundance.