Monday, January 14, 2013

Uranium: It's for Your Own Good, Damnit!

Our area is facing the battle of a lifetime - and future lifetimes.  There's uranium in them there hills.  The family (and their friends and highly gifted and supported politicians) that owns the site where it is located has engaged our community in an ugly fight.  They say they're doing it for patriotic reasons - energy security and economic prosperity for the community - and that modern uranium mining and milling practices are perfectly safe.  In fact, they flew some politicians on an all-expense-paid trip to France to see an operating mine - and they got to spend some time in Paris, again all expenses paid.  Of course, it wasn't a bribe.  "Pro" politicians have also promised huge tax revenue for the state from the mining and milling operation.  In researching this topic, I've found lots of holes in their reasoning.

First of all, the United States has all uranium needs already satisfied.  In addition, we haven't built a commercial nuclear plant since the 1970s.  And forecasts for energy needs for the next 20 years are for nuclear power to make up less than 1% of the supply.  The reality is that China, not the US, would be the likely buyer of this uranium and it seems like they're looking for a safer alternative to uranium for their nuclear needs.  Thorium is more abundant and reactors using it as a fuel source "cannot melt down or blow up....floods, earthquakes, fires, tsunamis or operator error cannot generate critical incidents."  I can understand their desire to find a safer alternative.  This also means uranium prices should drop considerably.

We're also told that "now" we know better and that we can safely mine and mill uranium.  However, the United States is busy cleaning up superfund sites and other problems from earlier uranium mines.  These sites are in the west, mainly on Native American reservations where the residents continue to experience serious health consequences as a result of having uranium mines nearby.  The companies that operated the mines aren't paying for this cleanup; taxpayers are.  This Slate article touches on some of these issues.  Do a Google search to see what happened with uranium mining in the West.

We're the government and we know what we're doing.  Remember Katrina.  The levies were supposed to be safe.  We know better now.  How can the powers-that-be guarantee the safety of storing uranium tailings in a wet climate that is subject to hurricanes?  Everyone downstream from the site is at risk - this includes people all the way to the coast in Virginia beach and even southward to people in North Carolina, people who have no say in the matter.

The "pro" side claims that, while there were problems with uranium mining in the past, modern mines are perfectly safe.  However, residents of Finland are seeing firsthand what can happen with modern, "safe" mines.  A nickle mine in Sotkamo, in eastern Finland, which was established in 2008, has sprung two leaks that resulted in high levels of uranium in the water supply.  Seems this mine was put together in a hurry, has had other problems, and initally the founder of the mining company was not as involved with the leak as he should have been.  At one of the uranium meetings where the state and federal government had representatives, again and again they spoke of safeguards to monitor the drinking water in the area.  Monitoring is not a preventative method.  That's equivalent to old saying about shutting the barn door after the horse is out as the Finnish people whose drinking water is contaminated have learned.  

West Virginia also know firsthand about how promises of economic prosperity can go unfulfilled.  When fracking was introduced there, similar promises of job creation, additional tax revenue, and general economic prosperity were made to residents.  None of it panned out.  These are the same promises we're getting from the uranium industry and the government.  

As far as the potential for employing local residents in the planned mining and milling operation, my husband astutely pointed out, do we really want inexperienced people learning on the job in the uranium business?  Especially when this proposed mine is venturing into uncharted territory with both a state government and regional area (east of the Rocky Mountains) that has relatively high rainfall, regular hurricanes, and a seismic fault line running through the state.  Most employees would be imported - and exported as soon as the mining is complete.  Abandoned towns do not experience economic prosperity.  Think of the abandoned mining towns of the West.

Our politicians (despite their political leanings) and most (if not all) municipalities and major business and community organizations in this area (and in others) have come out in opposition to lifting the ban.  They have said, after weighing the issues, that the end result will be economically devastating to our area.  Even with so-called job creation, the stigma of a uranium mine - and milling operation next door - would keep new businesses away from the area and drive those who could relocate to do so.

A handful of business owners and other residents have banded together to support the mining/milling effort.  One of these business owners is someone whose business I have frequented for almost 10 years, despite the fact that my neighbor said it is the most expensive one in the area and despite that I knew I did not support her politics.  This issue makes it impossible for me to continue using her services.  If she and others like her think that uranium mining will bring them more business, I suspect that instead, they are alienating many of their current clients and customers - and it will hurt them in the long run.  Unless, of course, they are investors in the company that plans to do the mining/milling.  It's hard to know because, as far as I can tell, there is no public list of the investors.

Our area does need jobs and the money spent on convincing politicians and businesses in other parts of the state to lift the ban could be better used creating jobs in clean energy and other areas. Our county, the largest in Virginia, lacks high speed internet.  If that infrastructure was added to this area, not only would jobs be added with the actual construction project, but it would open up many opportunities.  Our neighbor to the south, North Carolina, is investing in solar parks - why not here?  Germany, a country much farther north than our area, already generates one-fourth of their energy through solar and wind power.  Why not here?  There are so many other safe options for economic development.

Knowing that people in other parts of the state, people who are near other uranium deposits, are worried about mining in their area, our dear state legislators who are "pro-uranium" have cleverly crafted the bill so that it excludes any uranium site except for the one located in our county.  How wrong is that?  If it's safe and good for our community, it should be for everyone.

So, if people who desperately need jobs say no to lifting the ban and if the idea of "energy security" isn't true, what is all this about?  I'm not one to believe people set out to be evil or that there are planned conspiracies, but I do believe that ego and money tend to combine to make the perfect storm.  And I believe that's what is happening here. 

We don't want your "economic prosperity," damnit!


EcoGrrl said...

Ugh - I saw your comments and this and guess what, it's not just in your neck of the woods. This jackass Australian company is trying to do it in the last pristine area of Oregon - Southeast. Like their company name? Gnarly.

Cherie said...

EcoGrrl, ugh is right.:(