Friday, October 14, 2011

Uranium Mining in Virginia

By Tony Noerpel

On November 11, 2011, Friday evening starting at 6:00 PM, at George Washington University, Ashburn Campus off of Route 7, the Piedmont Environmental Council, George Washington University and Sustainable Loudoun are hosting a discussion forum on uranium mining in Virginia.  A longer version of this article will be published by the Blue Ridge Leader.

In 1982, the Virginia state legislature passed what amounts to an effective moratorium on uranium mining in the state.  Virginia Uranium is lobbying to have this moratorium lifted so that they can surface mine the uranium deposit at Coles Hill, in Pittsylvania County.  The accompanying figure from the Piedmont Environmental Council, shows potential uranium resources in our area.  The map is based on data published by the United States Geological Survey in 1998 which is a geochemical analysis of stream sediment and other solid samples.  Note that there is a large blotch of red in Western Loudoun County under many of our homes and farms.  

While nuclear power has several serious problems associated with cost, safety and waste the most obvious problem, and the one most relevant to the issue at hand, is the future supply of uranium.  If there is not a huge reliable supply then nuclear power is not the solution to our energy problems.  If the supply is very limited then it is not even a small part of the solution space.  If humanity commits itself to nuclear power and the supply is limited then uranium mining may be extended beyond the proposed Coles Hill site into other parts of the state.  

Virginia Uranium publishes the following exchange on their web site, under the heading “Myth and Fact”:

The Piedmont Environmental Council has circulated a map of Virginia entitled “Water supplies potentially impacted by uranium mining” that includes Fairfax, Town of Orange, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, as well as Halifax, Clarksville and Mecklenburg. – Piedmont Environmental Council website, February 21, 2011

These water supplies are not threatened by Coles Hill or any other uranium deposit.  As state regulators have testified, Coles Hill is the only deposit in Virginia worth mining. “With the exception of Coles Hill, none of the occurrences identified to date are presently considered economic deposits due to low grade and/or limited extent.” – William L. Lassetter, Jr., Economic Geology Manager, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, Division of Geology and Mineral Resources.

Virginia Uranium does not deny that mining Coles Hill threatens the water supply in Pittsylvania County and the quote from William Lassetter does not address the impact of uranium mining on local water supply.  In a phone call, Lassetter assured me he has no opinion on the impact of mining on water supply.  Lassetter’s use of the word presently specifically does not preclude uranium mining anywhere else in the state. Oil from Canadian tar sands deposits was considered uneconomical until shortages developed and prices rose.

This limits consideration to what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) classifies as Reasonably Assured Resources or RAR uranium deposits, according to the IAEA and NEA Red Book.  The Red Book is the most credible source for uranium deposit data and is cited by proponents and opponents of nuclear energy alike.  

Uranium resources are described by four classes: Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR), Inferred Resources (IR), Speculative Resources (SR) and Prognosticated Resources (PR).  IR, SR and PR are specifically “undiscovered”.  Of the three classes IR have the highest probability and are “not yet discovered but believed to exist”.  The table below lists the amount of uranium in metric kilo tonnes.  Worldwide, we consume 70000 tonnes per year in our reactors.  Using only RAR we have only 57 years worth of uranium supply at the current consumption rate and assuming we can recover 100% of the uranium in the ore.  If we assume a 58% recovery rate (European historic) and assume nuclear power grows by 2% per year then we will run out of RAR within 23 years.  Clearly we have considerable supply problems if we try to grow nuclear power much beyond the current level of consumption.

Class2009 resources
Table 1 - Resources per class in metric tons

When you read that we have over 200 years worth of uranium the writer is including all of the undiscovered speculative and prognosticated resources and assuming no growth and 100% recovery of “undiscovered” resources.  


Michael Dittmar, “The End of Cheap Uranium”, Institute of Particle Physics, ETH, 8093 Zurich, Switzerland, June 17, 2011

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