Lake Gaston Association told to worry about uranium. Also encouraged to ask more questions
On Wednesday, Jan 6, 2015, the Lake Gaston Association (LGA) monthly meeting featured a presentation from Tom Leahy, director of the Virginia Beach Public Utilities Department. The announced topic was an update on uranium mining and coal ash control. I saw an opportunity to combine some exploration of Virginia backroads with the chance to meet some new people who might be interested in learning more about uranium mining and nuclear energy.
Perspective on health effects of worst case contamination
It might be best to lead off with a little perspective for the people who attended the meeting and did not receive this from the presenter.
The most important question asked during the Q&A session came from a gentleman sitting next to me. He asked for the bottom line – what did the numbers and the model outcome described really mean to him as a lakefront property owner? Another person from the back of the room forcefully indicated that she only wanted to know the worst case scenario because that is what she uses to establish her positions on issues.
So let’s go with that. I’ll provide more details about the model assumptions and their validity below, but the worst case shown by Mr. Leahy indicated that Lake Gaston might experience up to two years in which the water in the lake could be contaminated with a mixture of uranium, radium and thorium with a peak total activity level of perhaps 120 picocuries per liter. He stated that was way above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for drinking water of 5 pCi/L for combined radium 226/228.
Aside: That MCL is based on keeping annual exposure from drinking water to less than 4 mrem/year for someone who uses that water as their only water source for a year. End Aside.
Eventually, the contamination would settle out and join mercury, arsenic and other contaminants at the bottom of the lake.
Here is the perspective part. According the long term studies of more than 4,400 radium dial watch painters in the U.S. there were no radium related malignancies [pg. 13] in any worker who ingested a total of less than 60 microcuries of radium. Nearly all of the workers who ingested radium were women.
If a person drank three liters of water contaminated with 120 picocuries of radium every day, it would take them more than 160,000 days (456 years) to ingest 60 microcuries of radium.
Of course, people don’t drink water straight out of a lake without some treatment, they don’t live for 456 years, and the contaminants, even in the worst case, only stay in the lake water for less than 2 years.
If I was a lakefront home owner worried about my health, the value of my property, and my family’s ability to enjoy the benefits of living on a beautiful recreational paradise like Lake Gaston, I would spend a lot more time thinking about ways to combat Lyngbya wollei than seeking to maintain a legal prohibition on applying for the permits that would be required to mine uranium on a plantation more than 60 miles away.
Mr. Leahy’s organization received direction the Virginia Beach council to determine the possible effects of a uranium mine at the Coles Hill site, which is approximately equidistant between Chatham and Gretna Virginia. As a result, he commissioned a model that could be used to predict the possible effects of failures of the tailings confinement cells.
The primary assumption for the model is that one containment cell fails catastrophically and delivers 1/3 of its contents into the Lake Kerr/Lake Gaston system. The presumption comes as a result of imagining what might happen if the site experienced the kind of rainfall event that occurred in Nelson County, Virginia during Hurricane Camille. That event dropped more than 30 inches of rain over a 24 hour period in a mountainous region of the state.
Mr. Leahy and one of the audience members spent a considerable amount of time describing that famous event, which was graphically depicted in a book titled Roar of the Heavens. Mr. Leahy strongly recommended that anyone thinking about accepting uranium mining in Virginia find and read a copy of that book. He also told the LGA president that he would be happy to send him a copy of the book that could be passed around.
The model was then run to show how the mine tailings would be distributed in the lake and to predict the concentrations of radioactive elements in the water. There were two limiting scenarios, one in which the catastrophic rainfall event was followed by a long dry spell equal to an actual period of time in Virginia’s meteorological history and one in which the catastrophic rainfall event was followed by a lengthy wet period, also based on historical records.
The dry period led to the highest concentrations with the peak of about 120 picocuries/liter mentioned above. The wet period resulted in much lower peak concentrations; as Mr. Leahy explained, “Dilution can be the solution.”
One of the things that was glossed over was the fact that Coles Hill is several tens of miles from the mountainous region of the state; it is in the Piedmont area with gently rolling hills. It is not vulnerable to flash flooding. As far as I could tell, the model also assumes that there is little settling or material deposition in the 50 or so miles worth of winding creeks and rivers between Coles Hill and the lake system.
Economic and political arguments
Mr. Leahy also spent a fair amount of time describing the size of the deposit, the historical price of uranium, the sources of uranium fueling U.S. nuclear power plants, and the resulting overall value of the Coles Hill deposit. It didn’t surprise me to note that he chose a low estimate of the size of the resource (60 million pounds) and a low estimate of the market price of uranium ($16-$50 per pound) to indicate a total value of between $1-$3 Billion. Virginia Uranium literature uses 119 million pounds and about $60 per pound over the life of the deposit to indicate a total value of ~$7 billion.
He mentioned at least four times that he was not antinuclear and that he recognized that we had to get electricity from somewhere. However, his message was clearly aimed at convincing the audience that it would be better for uranium to come from somewhere else. He did not mention that a large portion of the known U.S. uranium resources have been put off limits because they are remotely close to the Grand Canyon and he did not mention that more than 50% of U.S. uranium is currently coming from either Russia or Kazakhstan.
Leahy’s presentation described VUI’s failed attempt to sue the state in federal court based on a preemption argument. The tone during that portion of the presentation indicated that the action was a desperate attempt to perform an end run around the political process.
He mentioned the still on going suit based on the argument that the state’s prohibition on uranium mining constitutes an uncompensated “taking” of private property for public goals. He reminded the audience that he was not a lawyer and then made the claim that courts normally consider property to be taken if all possible uses are prevented. That is not true under the recently passed amendment to the Virginia Commonwealth Constitution.
Questions and answers
During the Q&A, I probably overstepped my role as a guest, but I asked Mr. Leahy several questions. One of them was to wonder if he and his organization believed — if the assumed catastrophic rainfall event occurred — that contamination of the lake system to 120 picocuries/liter would be the most dangerous thing entering the lake. I pointed out that such an event would likely fill the lakes with many other contaminants of concern, like petroleum, agricultural chemicals, automobiles, etc.
I also tried to put the EPA’s MCL selection into perspective by pointing out that it tries to limit additional radiation exposure to 4 mrem/year in a world where average background is already greater than 300 mrem/year.
Finally, I tried to point out that the model assumes that no actions were taken before or after the catastrophic rainfall event to slow or mitigate the potential effects of the assumed confinement cell failure. Mr. Leahy said the model assumes nothing is done because there wouldn’t be enough time and transportation infrastructure might be severely damaged.
There were several quite rational questions and suggestions from the rest of the attendees. One gentleman even mentioned the fact that recent studies are showing that low levels of radiation are actually good for people, though he did not use the term “hormesis.”
At the end, Mr. Leahy defended his position by saying that the public fear of the possible risk was the real basis for working to keep uranium mining illegal. As is often the case, he did not seem to be self aware enough to understand how presentations like his contribute to fear and trembling instead of contributing to understanding and acceptance.
He also mentioned that his organization has invested more than $1 million in its model.
As advertised, he also spent some time talking about coal ash concerns and the recent spill into the Dan River. Others at the meeting might have received a different impression, but my take away was that he was quite reassuring about the impact of the spill and the fact that effective actions were being taken to limit the potential of occurance and the extend of consequences for future events.
When I apologized to the president of the LGA for perhaps asking too many questions, he assured me that he welcomed them. He thanked me for taking the time to come to the meeting and to provide a different perspective based on deep knowledge. He also mentioned that his organization had once hosted representatives of Virginia Uranium, but they had not done a very good job in answering questions or alleviating concerns.
PS: I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with a number of the LGA members both before and after the meeting. At one point, there were four ex-Navy guys (including me) sharing tales about boats, planes and ships.
The question would be who is going to do the uranium mining, and what is their history of environmental concern. The models predicting lake contamination mean absolutely nothing if the mining company shows the usual disregard for regulations and pollutant containment.
You misunderstand what the model results show. It shows how high the contamination might get if there is a complete failure of the retention system. It is a projection based on a catastrophic event with no action by responsible parties to respond or mitigate the effects.
The people who own the resource and a major portion of the company that will be doing the mining have a long term stake in the local community and environment. The land has been in the family since 1800. When my wife and I paid a visit to the property, our host told us that the Coles intended to continue using their house, which is only a hundred yards or so from the location of the deposit.
That intention convinced her that she’d be willing to live next door to the mine they intend to operate.
So you know the name of the mining company? Who is it? Honestly, Rod, its hard the trust the predicted “worst case scenario” when the prediction is made by a large mining company, or a family owning the mineral rights to an asset possibly worth billions, or at least hundreds of millions. I know of many large farming estates that did not survive the transition of ownership from one generation to the next. Theres many a tract of cookie cutter homes on the outskirts of Bakersield that were the result of offspring inheriting old 2nd and third generation farming real estate, selling out, and now languishing in their mansions in Malibu or Hawaii. Would you agree these land owners have a vested interest in presenting a very rosy scenarion, as does whatever mining company thats inserting themselves into this family’s good graces?
Have you looked into the mining company’s history?
Virginia Uranium, Inc. http://www.virginiauranium.com/
Please read the article again carefully. The worst case scenario described in the presentation was created by the Virginia Beach Public Works Department at the request of their council. Both organizations are staunchly OPPOSED to mining and support maintaining the current prohibition on any responsible state agency from accepting any permit applications related to mining uranium.
The presenter thought that the the model’s results of 120 picocuries/liter should scare people because that number is about 25 times higher than the EPA’s MCL for drinking water. I tried to offer some perspective to that number based on actual studies of real human beings — mostly women — who ingested the material that is supposed to be so frightening.
Rod – thanks for the post, for going to the meeting, and for reporting. A 1 million dollar model from the Virginia Beach Public Utilities Department? That seems like a lot of money to spend.
But what I really want to point out is the ridiculous ‘picocuries per liter’ measurement unit. A Curie is defined as 3.7 x 10^10 decays per second. A picocurie is one trillionth of that (10^-12) which is a decay every 27 seconds. My body’s potassium 40 activity is about 4,000 Becquerels in about 90 liters of volume. My personal radioactivity – and it’s already in my body and acting all the time – therefore works out to 1200 picocuries per liter. Vampires beware of drinking my blood – it’s contaminated to ten times the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level! Can my blood be safely used for transfusions?
I mentioned this figure to a friend over dinner. He very pointedly edged away from me, and we had a good laugh. I just wanted to point out the silliness of ‘picocuries per liter’ – except that the measurements get used to amplify FUD.
I feel like I need one of those cheat sheet wrist bands that NFL quaterbacks use to help with play calls to understand all the radiation measurements [alternatively, I would take an earpiece that has E-P on the other side]. It would go a long way if nuclear professionals could use a standardized “banana” or “Denver” dose equivalent to communicate radiation amounts to the general public.
You flatter me. Rod’s the expert here, I’m the dilletante.
Re: “…point out the silliness of ‘picocuries per liter’ – except that the measurements get used to amplify FUD.”
That’s how antis royally get over the fretfully FUD’ed public, knowing that most nuclear-folk lingo shoots itself in the foot by tending to glaze over the public’s eyes to escape to simpler “grass-roots” answers like “green”. To talk and relate to public perceptions and conceptions to get them to understand your nuclear case (de-FUD), one must convert techie nuke terms and measurements to almost “silly” terms and examples; A what-% of a picocurie has the same impact on health as a single micro-particle of second-hand smoke in your lungs, etc. Ah, John-Q Public grasps that! Really, at its core, to road to the public embracing nuclear power of ANY whiz-bang stripe is a PR and mass public education war.
Yep. And you guys are taking knives to the gunfight.
You’re right. Us scientifically ungifted bumpkins of Realworld USA haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about when you get all lofty and techie about it. Woooosh….goes right over our heads. So yeah, you not only need to present your facts in a very simplified format and lingo, you also need to present then in a manner that invites civil engagement. Not hard to examine this site and see what NOT to do. A couple of posters here are giving a running tutorial on that subject.
@poa and James Greenidge
I respect my audiences enough to use accurate information and standard units of measure. In this case, I could have translated the units to the international standard, but did not want to confuse it anymore than necessary.
Besides, homeowners that are members of a lakefront property association, even in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina, are rarely “ungifted bumpkins.” They are mostly bright, successful people who understand the value of good jobs and a prosperous economy.
And you are correct in such situations being in the company of the enlightened successful, but from the urban/suburban grass-roots where I graze most folks still regard atomic science like rocket science which in most presentations is highly intimidating to their public education, hence the sexy and easy to swallow appeal of “simpler” and more “natural” energy sources like wind and solar. Were the greater NYC metro area here as enlightened as the successful denizens of Virgina and NC and such, we wouldn’t be scared witless and jittery by (needlessly nit-picking) occasional nuclear “incident” media reports like a bucket of mildly radioactive water being accidentally kicked over at Indian Point or that a local “meltdown alert siren” was accidentally triggered in the night by a short circuit by nibbling squirrels — like such should deserve any press attention at all (such coy FUD sure helped do in Shoreham). Carl Sagan knew how to crunch astrophysics down into bite-sized pieces gobbled up by the masses and NASA benefited well from that. It’s woefully long due that nuclear energy benefited by such a scholarly showman.
I dont know, I like AJ’s quick point: the activity they’re talking about in the lake water is one-tenth the activity you have in your body right now.
As good and simple as that point is, unfortunately, if you bring that up in a meeting you will quickly get mired down in “yes but the radium in the lake water is an alpha emitter and your potassium is a beta emitter… blah blah blah…”
So you see, there is a “point” to the “techie” talk — namely, being correct, being accurate. The supposedly naive “greenies” are not as ignorant as some like to paint them.
Worst case scenarios like this are there to inform mine site design rather than give a probability of an occurance.
For example in 2013 in Australia we had a 1million litre (~265k gal) leach tank split open releasing uranium, acid and sludge into the mine area at the Ranger mine. Because of the design informed by worst case scenarios all the material was caught by the bunding and channeled into a special drainage system. The investigative bodies found no material impact to the surrounding environment including nearby water catchments.
The key thing to note about this incident is that it is in a monsoonal wet area, on aboriginal land and right next to one of Australia’s premier tourist destinations the Kakadu national park.
I’ve seen my fair share of uranium mines in Australia and they all take safety and the environment very seriously. I know this may be a bit different to how the US regulations may operate, but it’s an example of how a mine in a tricky location can analyse a worst case, plan and design to mitigate any contamination.
I have to admit, I have some sympathy to the anti- argument here. Yes, the radiophobic fear-mongering is shameful. But my own twinges of doubt have nothing to do with the Uranium part of the mining; it’s about the MINING part of the mining.
This is an industry that – broadly speaking – does not have a great reputation in terms of care for surrounding communities or their inhabitants. It’s a shame because Virginia Uranium may be an honorable upstanding company, but they no doubt get subliminally tarnished with all the sludge piles and mountaintop removals and black lung cases of the last 200 years. I think the same people would object just the same if it were a Neodymium mine or a Lead mine…they would just find different ways to create and trumpet a ‘worst case scenario’.
“…….it’s about the MINING part of the mining.”
@poa and swains
Do you have any idea how much of the material you see in use in your daily lives come from MINING?
How many times have you visited a mine or talked to professional miners?
There has been a long campaign to frighten people about mining of any kind. Perhaps that is because most mined products end up being commodities with cyclical price swings based on the balance between supply and demand. Once a new mine is finally in operation, its owners have lots of incentive to try to pull up the ladder behind them to stop new entries into the field.
Rod-I like what slaughterhouses produce too, but that doesn’t mean I want to live near one.
And no, I have zero direct experience with mines. I’m completely with you on the societal benefits of mining and mining products…you had me at hello. But you know I wasn’t arguing against mining per se. What I’m saying is – for right or wrong, the world doesn’t think of mining companies as good stewards of the environment regardless of what they are digging for….like any private enterprise, their motivations skew toward profit margins over making sure they don’t let tailings ponds leech into the water table, or blow up a picturesque mountaintop, or accidentally bury a dozen Chileans.
I am against mindless opposition to this Virginia deal, and the radiological fearmongering is frustrating as hell. But in a narrow sense I sympathize with those residents who don’t want to give mining companies the benefit of the doubt, and who aren’t willing to just take them at their word that everything is gonna be alright. The radioactive lake concern is bullshit but i suspect it’s a proxy for other concerns – rational or not – about mining.
“Do you have any idea how much of the material you see in use in your daily lives come from MINING?”
Do you have any idea how many ecological wastelands, environmental nightmares, and destroyed habitats, have come from mining?
Hey Rod, who owns Virginia Uranium Inc?
Hey Rod, who owns Virginia Uranium Inc?
Hope many times are you going to ask me that question? I’ve given you the links and the company name. Figure it out. It’s not the kind of research I feel like doing.
Well….I posted an answer to that question, with a link, and it has not appeared here. I guess its just an oversight.
It’s a publicly traded company, traded on the TSX, with documentation on EDGAR, Canada’s version of the SEC.
POA. Get a grip, here. Uranium mining is more heavily regulated than any other type of mining in the US. Yes, back in the day, uranium mining was destructive; there are hundreds of unreclaimed sites across the American Southwest, especially New Mexico, that have never been cleaned up.
Those days are over.
The Virginia Uranium company has never mined anything. But there are uranium mines today that operate safely and in an environmental conscious manner. I’ve visited several of them.
Heres an excerpt from the link that hasn’t yet appeared, despite two attempts, one much earlier today.
“One of the largest mining companies in Canada is Cameco. Cameco was the company who in September 2009 hosted fifteen Virginia legislators for a mining tour.
Although not part of the tour, apparently, two of the mines owned by Cameco are the MacArthur River and Cigar Lake.
The MacArthur River mine had a cave-in resulting in a flood of radioactive waste in April 2003. As reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the company had been warned and knew about the potential disaster and did nothing to prevent it.
Bloomberg reported in October 2006 that the Cigar Lake mine suffered a massive flood as a result of shoddy prevention practices.
It is no wonder that there have been labor strikes against Cameco. (Reuters: September 12, 2014). In addition, Cameco was accused by the Canadian government “of a multimillion dollar tax dodge” (CBC: September 9, 2013) and is in a tax dispute with the US/IRS. (February 6, 2014).
As for Virginia Uranium, Inc. at Coles Hill, the current ownership is not quite clear. Two mining firms, Virginia Energy Resources (Chaired by Walter Coles, Sr.) and Sprott Inc. (a multifaceted Canadian firm with precious metal mining interests and connections to Zijin, a large, state-owned Chinese mining group), own 49.8 percent.
Walter Coles, Jr., states that the larges individual shareholder is Lukas Lundin of Vancouver, Canada, who chairs seven Canadian mining companies.
Lundin presided over the merger between Denison Mines Corporation (one of his companies) and Fission Uranium Corporation.
Lundin will chair the combined entity. Peter Koven reported in Mining, July 6, 2015, that it is expected Cameco will seek to purchase the new company under Lundin.
Given Cameco’s active interest in seeking the good will of our Virginia legislators, this would seem a logical next step in acquiring an operating interest in Virginia Uranium, Inc.”
I’ve been keeping up on the moderation folder and haven’t seen any posts from you in there today.
Weird. I posted links to that cameco thing twice. I wonder if theres something wrong with the link.
The Denison-Fission merger was terminated. The “tax dodge” is related to transactions between international subsidiaries of Cameco. It’s plodding its way through Canadian courts.
Cameco is not going to buy Denison, Fission or any other junior mining company right now. U prices are too low and Cameco has plenty of its own uranium. Cameco is definitely not going to buy a company with an ore deposit in Virginia.
As for the rest you might want to check the followup reporting on Cameco. Labor strikes happen. Labor strikes are resolved. The mining technology being used at Cigar Lake is cutting-edge. The ore body is located within water, ergo “flooding,” with the water already there already “contaminated” by the uranium. Nothing shoddy about it.
Finally, accidents can and do happen, at all mines everywhere. It’s how they are resolved and managed that matters. You might want to check out more recent links and definitely the Canada Nuclear Safety Commission. Wealth of information there.
Today’s uranium mining, in North America, is not your grandpa’s uranium mining. It’s called progress and innovation.
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