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Uranium-mining forum sets stage for General Assembly's expected consideration of lifting a 29-year moratorium.
By RUSTY DENNEN
RICHMOND--If state lawmakers lift a 29-year moratorium to allow uranium mining in Pittsylvania County, areas west of Fredericksburg and other spots with uranium deposits in Virginia could be next.
But at a forum on the topic yesterday hosted by the Garden Club of Virginia at the University of Richmond, panelists were split on whether that could happen.
Patrick Wales, geologist and project manager for Virginia Uranium Inc., said the company is interested only in its Coles Hill site in Pittsylvania. The county is about 180 miles southwest of the Fredericksburg area.
"I understand why others would want to expand this" to other areas in the state, he said. "They [opponents] would like to make this seem like it's a statewide issue."
The moratorium is a concern here because in the 1970s, Marline Uranium Corp. secured leases on thousands of acres in Orange, Culpeper, Madison and Fauquier counties with a plan to mine and mill the radioactive mineral.
The Marline leases were withdrawn in the early 1980s when uranium prices plummeted, and projected demand for enriched uranium to fuel nuclear power plants fell after the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
In a lunch-break session with reporters, Wales said a state geologist concluded that Coles Hill is the only economically viable deposit in Virginia.
"And it's not as though other parts of the state have not been scoured; many were in the 1970s."
Robert Bodnar, a professor of geochemistry at Virginia Tech, who has worked for Chevron, the U.S. Geological Survey and mining projects around the globe, said economics are key to the industry.
"Mining is a business activity, driven in this country by profit. If there's a deposit and you can't make money, you're not gonna see mining."
Virginia Uranium says there are 119 million pounds of uranium at its 3,000-acre site, worth an estimated $10 billion. Some opponents claim the actual amount that can be recovered and processed is roughly half the company's estimate.
As to whether deposits outside Pittsylvania could be tapped, "If the price goes up, there might be mining where there's other uranium occurrences in the state," Bodnar said.
According to the Encyclopedia of Earth, uranium is a radioactive element that occurs naturally in low concentrations (a few parts per million) in soil, rock, and surface and groundwater. Virginia, though, has one of the richest deposits in the nation.
Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element, with an atomic number of 92. In its pure form, it is a silver-colored heavy metal that is nearly twice as dense as lead. Uranium dioxide is used to make fuel pellets used in nuclear power plants.