Ban On The Run? Maintain Prohibition On Uranium Mining

Published 3:39 pm Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gov. McDonnell very sensibly asked the General Assembly last week to maintain the moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia and directed state agencies to analyze the related scientific and legal issues for a full report prior to the 2013 legislative session.

“Before we make important policy decisions about whether or not to proceed, we must be certain that uranium mining can be conducted safely and responsibly,” the governor stated regarding the possibility of uranium mining in Pittsylvania County.

Many, many things-even those that carry with them inherent risks-can be conducted safely and responsibly.

But accidents still do happen every day.

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Unforeseen factors, alone or in concert, can create an accident in even the most controlled conditions of quality management.

Furthermore, any process that involves human beings is susceptible to human error, in addition to a mechanical malfunction or breakdown.

There can never be a guarantee against human error in any endeavor, even the simplest undertaking.

Armed with that knowledge and acceptance of its truth, there are activities we humans nonetheless embrace because we believe the benefits are so great that they outweigh the risks.

We drive our cars down highways to work, knowing there are other motorists driving while talking on the phone or texting. Still, we accept the danger because the reward-employment and a paycheck-allow us to provide for our families and contribute to society.

We fly in planes, travel in boats, explore space, and climb stepladders to clean gutters.

Risk, risk, risk, and risk.

But we choose to accept that risk to ourselves and we make that decision for ourselves. The Challenger astronauts understood full well the risks they were embracing, even with the incredible high-tech cutting edge safety and quality control measures in place at NASA. The benefit to humanity from space exploration, they believed, was worth the personal risks they accepted.

But are the rewards of uranium mining so great that risks should be embraced, risks that have the potential to harm those who choose to embrace them by mining the uranium but also to harm others, should environmental contamination occur, who have not made that decision for themselves?

I do not believe so.

If it is not absolutely necessary to take this risk, it is absolutely necessary to leave it alone.

Prince Edward County's representative in the House of Delegates, James E. Edmunds II, of Halifax and a farmer, wrote a January 16 letter on the subject of uranium mining, noting several reports on the issue, one by the National Academy of Sciences. “It is notable that even assuming best practices and best technology and extensive regulation, the reports detail serious consequences to human health and the environment that can be expected (the emphasis is his own). It is not difficult to conclude the Academy is sending clear warning signals that mining and processing uranium in a wet climate subject to flooding and extreme weather events in a densely populated area is a very, very bad idea.”

If the risk and danger were only going to be confronted by those benefiting financially and through employment, that would be a different question. A question for them to answer for themselves.

But uranium mining poses potential risks that could affect the lives of those who have not answered Yes.

As the NAS report states, “Uranium mining and processes carries…a wide range of potential adverse human health risks. Certain exposures and their associated risks can extend via environmental pathways to the general population.”

And this: “Tailings disposal sites represent potential sources of contamination for thousands of years. And the long term risks remain poorly defined.”

In his announcement last week, Gov. McDonnell said, “The NAS study was broadly helpful in providing a better understanding of the associated economic benefits, which are potentially significant, as well as the possible risks, which are potentially serious, associated with uranium mining in this geography and climate.

“However, in order for an informed decision to be made by state lawmakers, we need more detailed information. Before we make any decisions about whether or not to proceed down the path to development, we must be certain that uranium mining can be conducted safely and responsibly. Public safety must be the primary factor in the ultimate determination as to whether to proceed with uranium mining.”

Indeed, it must.

And there are no guarantees when it comes to uranium mining.

That lack of a guarantee is fine for anyone willing to accept the risk for themselves.

But not for the rest of us.

Gov. McDonnell advocated last week what a governor must and should-maintain the moratorium and accumulate more information.

A year from now we expect both the governor and the General Assembly to support keeping the moratorium on uranium mining in place.