When the National Academy of Sciences issued its report on uranium mining in Virginia, it included a phrase about “steep hurdles” that has been seized by the people opposed to the enterprise and repeated as almost a mantra. It has made an appearance in almost every article I have read on the topic. Here is a quote from a recent Bloomberg article titled Va. business leaders surveyed on uranium that illustrates how it is often used:
The NAS study concluded Virginia would have to overcome “steep hurdles” to ensure that uranium mining and processing could be conducted safely. It did not offer a recommendation on the moratorium.
Apparently, there are many people who, when faced with the notion of taking a path that includes “steep hurdles” decide that it is best to avoid the challenge and find an easier road to travel, even if it does not arrive at the desired destination.
My own philosophy is to take the road that is less traveled and more strewn with obstacles – if and only if the available maps show that it will terminate in the place where I want to be. Once the more difficult, but accurate path is chosen, the key to achieving the desired destination is to keep moving forward one step at a time.
That is the philosophy that helped me through the process of graduating from the US Naval Academy, becoming a nuclear submarine engineer officer, and landing a good, post Navy retirement job that was purposely not in the defense industry during a slow economy in September 2010. It is also the philosophy that makes me want to traverse miles on the Appalachian Trail with a full backpack as often as possible.
Following a path that includes “steep hurdles” is not the same at attempting to do the impossible; it is a process of anticipating the hurdles and figuring out ways to overcome the obstacles. Sometimes the process involves teamwork, sometimes it involves detours, and sometimes it involves outside assistance.
Here is the more complete context from the conclusion of the NAS study titled Uranium Mining in Virginia.
The committee’s charge was to provide information and advice to the Virginia legislature as it weighs the factors involved in deciding whether to allow uranium mining. The report describes a range of potential issues that could arise if the moratorium on uranium mining were to be lifted, as well as providing information about best practices – applicable over the full uranium extraction life cycle – that are available to mitigate these potential issues.
If the Commonwealth of Virginia rescinds the existing moratorium on uranium mining, there are steep hurdles to be surmounted before uranium mining and/or processing could be established within a regulatory environment that is appropriately protective of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment. There is only limited experience with modern underground and open-pit uranium mining and processing practices in the wider United States, and no such experience in Virginia. At the same time, there exist internationally accepted best practices, founded on principles of openness, transparency, and public involvement in oversight and decision making, that could provide a starting point for the Commonwealth of Virginia were it to decide that the moratorium should be lifted. After extensive scientific and technical briefings, substantial public input, reviewing numerous documents and extensive deliberations, the committee is convinced that the adoption and rigorous implementation of such practices would be necessary if uranium mining, processing and reclamation were to be undertaken in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
I’ve read the full NAS report and can testify that part of the reason that the NAS conclusion sounds rather ominously difficult is that the study leader fully accepted the false notion that the tiniest amount of radiation increases the risk of contracting cancer. The Linear No Threshold dose response assumption plays a large role in the study’s discussion of potential public health effects.
I’m confident that the LNT dose response model substantially overstates the risk of negative health effects at the doses associated with even the very worst possible outcome at a uranium mine. There is evidence that the effect of a small amount of uranium, radium and other radioactive daughter products can provide longevity and lifestyle enhancing beneficial effects.
However, even if the LNT remains as the basis for regulation, the NAS never said that it was not possible to safely mine uranium. The study simply says it will require a substantial effort.
The pot of gold for the state of Virginia that would be reached, however, is worth the effort. The 119 million pounds of uranium that are in the ground under a few hundred acres of cow pastures at the Coles Hill farm could power all existing nuclear plants in the US for two years using our current technologies. The leftover material from that effort could supply as much energy as the whole US economy consumes for between 3 and 5 years if recycled into advanced converter/breeder reactors that more fully consume the potential fuel.
Mining Coles Hill might not solve world hunger, but it would make an positive impact in the lives of thousands to millions of people while posing virtually no risk of any public health consequences.
In the Bloomberg article titled Va. business leaders surveyed on uranium it is clear that one thing that would help convince more people is accessible, accurate information about the details of the process. The business leaders surveyed indicated that they wanted “unbiased” information, but any businessman worth his title will recognize that it is nearly impossible to eliminate bias in any communication.
There is no way that anyone could read Atomic Insights and come away with the impression that I am an unbiased source of information about nuclear energy. I hope, however, that most readers will agree that I am knowledgable about the topic and can separate good information from bad. In June 2012, my wife and I made a trip to Chatham (it’s less than an hour’s drive) and obtained a tour and a briefing from Patrick Wales. He later send me a handout version of the slides from the brief.
I’m sure that Virginia Uranium has updated their slides, and I can tell you that it would be even more enlightening to hear the brief while being able to see some of the displays in the tiny office that the company has at the end of a residential road in Chatham. However, the process of gathering information is a long one; I hope this helps some people take a needed step on a journey towards supporting the process of beneficially extracting valuable, ecologically beneficial fuel from one of the more appropriately located and accessible mineral deposits in the world.
Disclosure: I have no financial interest in Virginia Uranium. In fact, since I own stocks in several other uranium mining companies, it is possible that my support for mining the Coles Hill deposit might reduce the value of those securities due to the potential effect of introducing more supply into the market at a time of slow demand.
I have many financial and professional interests that would benefit, however, if people took an interest in learning more about the amazing energy density of uranium (and its actinide sisters, thorium and plutonium). It would be even more personally beneficial if they got excited about nuclear energy as a terrific tool in the human effort of overcoming both energy and environmental challenges.
My full time employment is with B&W mPower, Inc., but my views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.
ANS Nuclear Cafe – Building support for uranium mining in Virginia
Roanoke Times – Democrats should embrace uranium mining