This past week was highlighted by two events: one very tragic – the propane gas explosion that killed 25 miners in West Virginia; the other one is very promising – the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. What do these events mean for us, Virginians?
The Massey Energy Co. Upper Big Branch Mine explosion demonstrated a complete failure of the government oversight over mines. Coal mines are heavily regulated by state and federal governments; however, despite the fact that the inspectors from the federal agency Mine Safety and Health Administration have consistently registered violations of safety regulations at the Massey Energy Co. Upper Big Branch Mine, no enforcement action was taken. This resulted in a great loss of human lived.
The coal mining regulatory scheme has been in place for decades, which cannot be said about uranium mining safety regulations in Virginia. The proposed uranium mine at Coles Hill, VA will NOT be regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as this agency only regulates uranium milling and the regulation of conventional uranium mining is the responsibility of the states. Currently, Virginia does not have any uranium mining regulations in place. Those will have to be drafted from scratch and the enforcement mechanism of those regulations would have to be created on the spot. They would have to be tailored to take into account Virginia’s climate with its high precipitation levels, frequent floods and major storms that hit our coastal state. Because all other uranium mines in this country are located in much dryer climates with a lesser population density than in Virginia, our state legislators and regulators would have no examples to rely on when drafting uranium mining regulations.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does regulate the uranium milling process and oversees the fate of the radioactive waste left by uranium mining. The Environmental Protection Agency also has jurisdiction over the water issues associated with uranium mining. However, just like in the case of the Upper Big Branch Mine, the federal and state regulatory agencies overseeing uranium mining and milling have consistently failed to prevent environmental disasters and water contamination caused by mishandling of radioactive and highly toxic uranium mining tailings in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.
Virginians have been told many times that uranium is in high demand and will be needed to power all these nuclear plants for the construction of which the Department of Energy is giving away $54 billion in loan guarantees. Opponents of uranium mining in Virginia are also accused of being unpatriotic because domestically mined uranium should allegedly make the United States energy independent. What uranium mining proponents conveniently forget to mention that 50 percent of the fuel in the US nuclear reactors comes from dismantled nuclear bombs, the majority of which are Russian warheads. There will be much more of US and Russian nuclear warheads to dismantle in the future as a result of the START treaty signed by our President in Prague. The more Russian nuclear warheads are used to recycle uranium to fuel nuclear power plants in the US and throughout the world, the fewer warheads will be out there for terrorists to seize, which will make our towns and cities much safer. Will you call that unpatriotic?
National Public Radio Website “Documents Reveal Extensive Violations at Mine” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125788709
The Huftington Post, Transcript of CNN Interview with Jeff Biggers “Hold Those Mining Industry ‘Outlaws’ Accountable.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/08/jeff-biggers-hold-mining_n_530301.html
United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission “Uranium Mining, What We Regulate”
New York Times “Uranium Contamination Haunts Navajo Country“ http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/27/us/27navajo.html?_r=2
Navajo Times “Death in the Earth. 1979 Church Rock Spill a Symbol for Uranium Dangers”
Wikipedia “Sequoyah Fuels Corporation Release”
Bloomberg.com “Obama Said to Seek $54 Billion in Nuclear-Power Loans” http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=aC7VY11v6aMw
U.S. Department of Energy, Loan Guarantee Program.
New York Times “Power for U.S. From Russia’s Old Nuclear Weapons”
CNNPolitics “Obama, Medvedev Sign START Treaty”