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Uranium likely to be hot topic

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The possibility of lifting a 30-year ban on uranium mining in Virginia will be a hot topic in the 2013 General Assembly when it convenes Jan. 9, according to local lawmakers.

It will be “a nuclear issue, no pun intended,” Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, told local business leaders and government officials during the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Pre-legislative Breakfast on Tuesday at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Uranium is a radioactive element used to make nuclear power and weapons. The ban was enacted in 1983 after scientists voiced concerns that uranium mining could harm the environment and public health.

Virginia Uranium Inc. wants the ban repealed so it can mine and mill uranium at a location near Chatham thought to be one of the world’s largest deposits of the metal. The company maintains the mine would create hundreds of jobs and its operations would be safe.

Three of the four lawmakers who spoke during the breakfast oppose uranium mining.

By focusing on job creation, the company was “very smart in its approach” to try and convince people to favor repealing the ban, Marshall said.

Yet based on his understanding of mining processes, Marshall said for every 2,000 pounds of materials mined, only a pound would be actual uranium.

The rest would be “tailings” left behind with radioactivity that could take thousands of years to dissipate, he said.

Heavy rains and high winds could spread those radioactive materials over long distances, perhaps to other states, according to Marshall.

Del. Don Merricks, R-Pittsylvania County, said uranium is found throughout Virginia but studies have shown that the site the company wants to mine is the only potentially viable uranium mining location in the state.

“I could live with the mine” itself, Merricks said. “The problem is the stuff that’s left” after mining occurs, essentially “forever.”

“I don’t think we’re ready for uranium mining,” added state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Glade Hill. “The risk is too great.”

Del. Charles Poindexter, who also is a Glade Hill Republican, did not discuss his opinions on uranium mining during the breakfast.

Poindexter previously has indicated he was waiting for a report on what a regulatory framework should look like before he forms any opinions.

Among other topics discussed at the breakfast were transportation and the potential of federal sequestration — although only state lawmakers attended the event.

Sequestration refers to roughly $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts that will occur Jan. 1 if Congress and President Barack Obama cannot reach agreements on budget issues.

Federal lawmakers have “some hard decisions” to make, Merricks said. He added that Republicans and Democrats have to work together to make the decisions because lawmakers from one party cannot do it alone.

The federal government must generate new revenues as well as reduce spending, he said.

“It’s going to hurt to cut the budget, but it’s got to be done,” he added.

Any cuts to defense spending could greatly impact Virginia because the state has a lot of defense-related industries, lawmakers noted.

Poindexter said he wants to see the four-lane expansion of U.S. 58 finished and the construction of Interstate 73 begin.

Other lawmakers indicated they feel the same way.

But if people want highway improvements, “somebody’s got to pay for” them, Merricks said.

Ideas along that line include charging tolls along some highways and raising taxes on vehicle fuels, Poindexter said.

He said, though, that many lawmakers from rural areas are opposed to higher fuel taxes because right now, 42 cents of every $1 collected from gasoline taxes goes to help fund rail systems in Northern Virginia.


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