"We're looking at an extraordinary high-stakes gamble and it's not a gamble the state of Virginia should take," said Cale Jaffe, a leading voice against mining and director of the Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
It's not the mining that stirs the most concern, but the so-called milling â¿¿ the separation of the ore from hard rock.
As rock and uranium are mined, they are crushed and then leached through a chemical process to extract the ore. Besides yellowcake, the fuel for nuclear power plants, the process creates huge amounts of waste called tailings. The tailings must be stored for up to 1,000 years. Virginia Uranium, the company seeking the right to mine, has committed to storing the waste in below-ground containment cells that it says would minimize the risk of the radioactive waste being released to local wells or public drinking sources.
Opponents have not been appeased.They include the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm lobby and traditionally pro-business; the NAACP; church groups; municipal organizations; water-protection groups; and every environmental organization of note in the state. Delegate Donald Merricks, a Republican whose district includes Pittsylvania County, says the creation of mining jobs got his interest but not his support. 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."