Friday, November 20, 2009

In Case You Missed It: Flooding and Uranium

There was an interesting article in the Danville Register & Bee several days ago regarding how last week's flooding might have impacted a proposed uranium mine in Pittsylvania County. It didn't really attempt to offer an answer to that question, basically just quoting people for and against mining. But it does raise a lot of serious questions that mining advocates should have to answer.

Dueling quotes; cue the banjos!

Jack Dunavant, head of Halifax-based Southside Concerned Citizens, which opposes uranium mining, said alpha radiation from tailings, which contain 86 percent of the radiation found in natural uranium, would be washed downstream in a flood and be deposited in fertile low lands where animals graze and crops grow.

“All the animals would be subject to it,” Dunavant said.

Alpha radiation is “the most insidious and dangerous of all” types of radiation that causes birth defects and affects the genetic code, Dunavant said. It can be ingested when consumed in food, drank from water or breathed from mist while a person takes a shower, he said.

To be fair, gamma particles are actually the most dangerous, and those wouldn't be an issue while the uranium is being mined. But Dunavant is exactly right that alpha particles are still pretty nasty things once they get into your system, and they have a variety of ways to do so. Alpha particles are a big reason why Homeland Security is worried about dirty bombs. The Coles Hill site where uranium may be mined is part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which extends into North Carolina and ends up on the coast. If alpha-laden uranium tailings made their way into the floodwaters, they could eventually contaminate an enormous area, including farmland, fisheries and recreational areas.

Now a quote from Patrick Wales of Virginia Uranium:

VUI would build a tailings-management system meeting stringent guidelines under the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and other agencies, Wales said.

Tailings-management facilities have separated the tailings from interaction with the environment at locations all over the world, Wales said. Tailings are typically covered and lined underground with multiple layers of synthetic and clay liners to prevent interaction with surrounding groundwater, Wales said.

“These facilities are designed for severe weather,” Wales said.

A few feet of water can also be kept on top of the tailings to prevent dust.

All that sounds fine and dandy. But my biggest concern is the very real fact that things break. What if those tailings aren't contained properly? What if the containment systems themselves turn out not to be as good as originally thought? What if those regulatory agencies fall victim to budget cuts or overzealous deregulators? Even the most well-designed facility is going to have some flaws. If something were to go wrong and nuclear material were released into the watershed, there would be no undoing that damage.

Area farmers have built primitive ponds to successfully contain water with no government oversight, Wales said. In addition, rains have occurred for hundreds of millions of years and VUI’s operation would not increase the amount of radiation already in the rock, Wales said.

Huh? Farmers build ponds? I really wish the author had included the exact quote here instead of a paraphrase. I seriously hope Wales is not suggesting that open ponds would be a good place to put mine waste. We saw how well that worked out for the coal ash pond near Harriman, Tennessee, where a dam broke and flooded the town with toxic sludge. And as for the second part of his quote, I think what he's trying to get at is that the uranium in question is already part of the water table, but again I wish the actual quote were there. Even if that's his point, I still don't see why it's a good idea to bring that uranium to the surface.

One closing statement from a concerned area resident, who summed it up nicely:

Karen Maute, a county resident and uranium mining opponent, said last week’s flooding should “give pause” to people downstream and give notice to everyone of the consequences of the long-term storage of waste.

Mining and milling will be a finite operation, but the resulting waste will be around for thousands of years, she said.

Well said.

1 comment:

acethecat said...

Please review the pictures and video of the flooding in the area where the proposed uranium tailing ponds will be located!

Wale's tailings pond statement is theory and as far as I can tell, not practices in Canada or Australia!

The tailings ponds in both countries links and floods, remember, Canada will be mining in the State of Virginia!