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A state divided: Uranium mining in Virginia?

Vast uranium deposits in Virginia could make for extremely profitable mining. Opponents fiercely argue mining could lead to an environmental disaster, or water contamination. Lawmakers are expected to take the matter up in this session.

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Delegate Donald Merricks, a Republican whose district includes Pittsylvania County, says the creation of mining jobs got his interest but not his support.

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It's the milling that worries Merricks, and it's a tough call as he ticks off the jobs and industries that have withered through the years. He's quick to add, however, that he's heard from people who have decided against locating in his district because of the fear of uranium mining.

For him, it comes down to this: "How do you define safe?"

"I know you cannot 100 percent guarantee anything to be safe, but I think you need to have some reasonable assurances that the process is not going to contaminate the environment," he said. "Personally, I made the decision that I don't think it's worth the risk for the milling."

The story of uranium in Virginia parallels the nation's uneasy history with nuclear power.

The uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County was first detected in the 1950s but interest in mining it didn't develop until nuclear power emerged as a source of clean energy in the 1970s. The accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island, then the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine, changed that. As uranium prices plummeted, interest in tapping the Southside Virginia deposit waned and the Legislature enacted a moratorium on mining the ore in the 1980s. It remains in place to this day.

The uranium is located in two locations on Coles Hill, a 3,500-acre property in Pittsylvania County, about 20 miles from the North Carolina border. Coles Hill derives its name from the family whose ties to this land dates back more than two centuries and six generations. Its members are now famously known for the company they captain, Virginia Uranium.

The company was created a half-dozen years ago when the nation appeared poised for a nuclear power renaissance. That hasn't happened and an application to build a nuclear power plant hadn't been submitted for 30 years until February 2012. The company notes that more than 90 percent of the nation's 65 nuclear power plants get their fuel from foreign sources — Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan — and mining the Virginia deposit would strengthen the nation's energy independence.

Virginia Uranium, which has ties to Canadian mining interests, has pushed hard to have the decades-old moratorium end so it can begin the long process of securing environmental reviews and getting permits in place. It estimates mining wouldn't occur for another five to eight years.

The payoff is big: The company puts the value of the uranium at $7 billion. It would create about 300-350 high-paying jobs through the 35-year life of the mine and, according to some studies, pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy and add hundreds of other jobs related to the activity created by the mining.

But environmental issues are the sticking point.

The prospect of uranium mining in Virginia has spawned an avalanche of studies, none of which are definitive. A yearlong analysis by a National Academy of Sciences panel is considered the gold standard among all the others, and supporters and critics of mining draw generously from its final report to argue their competing points.

Yes, it concludes, mining and milling in the West in the past has resulted in arsenic and uranium in local water supplies, but modern mining practices have the potential to reduce those risks.

Modern containment cells are designed to keep the waste out of water, but monitoring of existing waste sites to assess long-term impacts has not been done over the generations that would be required in Virginia, the authors state.

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