The US Supreme Court will consider the safety and regulatory obstacles to reversing a ban on mining uranium in the state that dates back to 1982.
Around 119 million pounds of uranium, worth almost $10bn, was first discovered in the Prince William, Fauquier and Culpeper counties of Virginia in 1981 by the Marline Uranium Corporation, but the state enacted a moratorium the following year. The ruling was only intended to last until risks could be assessed and safeguards established, however, the ban has persisted for more than three decades.
While the Virginia Uranium company, which asserts that mining and milling of the radioactive material will generate considerable economic benefits for the state, has lobbied in favour of removing the ban, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) has identified several risks to the local environment and people, that some argue remain unresolved.
“The potential health impacts of exposure to uranium and mining chemicals are well-documented in global studies of people working in and living near mines, and include lung cancer, bone cancer, leukaemia, birth defects, weakened immune systems, hormone disruption and damage to DNA, the kidneys and the liver,” said the group.
Furthermore, questions have been raised about the ability of the state and federal governments to effectively regulate and manage uranium mining in Virginia. SELC said the state ‘ill-prepared prepared to sufficiently oversee the industry’, and the relatively high levels of precipitation in the state – Virginia experienced 41.52in of rainfall in 2017 compared with the US average of 32.31in – means conventional regulations may not be applicable for Virginia.
The US “has only limited recent experience regulating conventional uranium processing and reclamation of uranium mining and processing facilities”, according to the report ‘Uranium Mining in Virginia’, published by the National Academy of Sciences.
“Because almost all uranium mining and processing to date has taken place in parts of the US that have a negative water balance, federal agencies have limited experience applying laws and regulations in positive water balance situations.”
The deposit is the seventh-largest in the world, and contains enough uranium to supply all US nuclear plants for two years, or satisfy all of Virginia’s energy requirements for the next 75 years.