Uranium mining is not the most pressing question in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, which pits Tea Party favorite Ken Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, against former Democratic National Committee chair and Clinton pal Terry McAuliffe.
Or at least not yet.
But when Republican legislators recently sought to end a 31-year moratorium on digging up the nuclear fuel, the ensuing struggle in Virginia’s Assembly suggested that uranium could still become a highly radioactive election-year issue indeed – especially if McAuliffe and Cuccinelli come out on opposite sides of the question.
So far, neither McAuliffe nor Cuccinelli has yet taken a public position on whether to keep the moratorium in place, while Governor Bob McDonnell, a would-be Republican presidential candidate in 2016, has kept the problem at bay with the tried-and-true device of an ad hoc study commission.
The clearest sign of the power of the uranium mining issue came when Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling endorsed a continuation of the moratorium last December. At the time, Bolling was considering running for governor as an independent, having dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination earlier in the fall after Cuccinelli engineered a coup in the party’s selection process. The Republicans switched from an open primary to a conservative-dominated convention where the more moderate Bolling could not win. (He dropped his independent bid on March 12.)
The uranium in question is a huge deposit under agricultural land in Coles Hill, Pittsylvania County, on Virginia’s Southside, valued at $7 billion. Virginians have been fighting uranium mining since prospectors first identified deposits at dozens of locations four decades ago. In 1982, the legislature passed a ban on uranium mining until such time as “a program for permitting uranium mining is established by statute.”
The problem with uranium extraction, then and now, is that open-pit mining and milling, the method proposed for Coles Hill, leaves behind millions of tons of finely ground radioactive rock, called “tailings,” which must be kept isolated from air and water for thousands of years. Out west, many uranium-mining companies have walked away from mines or gone out of business, leaving the states and the federal government with the cost of cleaning up one of the larger environmental messes on planet.
If the proposed Coles Hill mine’s waste pond started leaking, the radioactive runoff would contaminate the water supply of more than 1.1 million people in Virginia and North Carolina, including the Hampden Roads coastal cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Newport News.
Preventing water contamination is much more difficult in Virginia than in western uranium-mining states because Virginia gets so much more rain. The state is also subject to hurricanes and other intense storms, producing local downpours that could overwhelm a tailings dam and cause a catastrophic release, like the Church Rock, New Mexico tailings dam failure in 1979.
The crash of the U.S. nuclear industry and low prices for uranium put a stop to mining efforts in Virginia during the 1980s and 1990s. But in 2007, Walter Coles, the eponymous owner of Coles Hill uranium deposit, teamed up with some Canadian investors to establish Virginia Uranium Inc., and launched a traditional top-down campaign to end the moratorium. The company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists, and has donated $271,150 to state legislative candidates since 2007.
The state is already home to a wide range of nuclear-related businesses: nuclear power plants (Dominion Resources), the construction nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines (Newport News Shipbuilding), operating nuclear Navy ships (Norfolk Naval Base) and major operations in Lynchburg by reactor builders Babcock & Wilcox and the French multinational Areva.