The Uranium Working Group (UWG)—established by Governor Bob McDonnell (R–VA) to help Virginia state legislators determine the regulatory requirements for uranium mining—released its final report today. Though we are still reviewing the 125-page report, some cursory conclusions are appropriate.
The most obvious takeaway is the comprehensive nature of the report. There should be no question that every possible risk, no matter how small, was reviewed. The report describes, in excruciating detail, countless environmental and public health metrics that could be modeled and monitored as part of a comprehensive regulatory regime.
Further, UWG, per its charge, diligently describes how to build a comprehensive regulatory regime for uranium mining in Virginia. Not only does it lay out the roles and responsibilities for each state and federal agency, but it also describes how the permitting process would work on both the federal and state levels.
And finally, it describes how a financial assurance program would work to provide adequate funds to pay any damages that might result from an accident and to cover any other costs that the state could incur as a result of the mine. This issue is perhaps the most important. An efficient and fair financial assurance program, built around strong liability requirements, will positively impact and strengthen the entire mining and milling operation.
Ultimately, if Virginia Uranium, Inc.—the company that wants to mine and mill uranium in Virginia—is held responsible for its activities, it will be strongly incentivized to operate as safely as possible. Indeed, appropriate liability requirements should minimize the need for heavy-handed regulations elsewhere.
There is a potential problem with the report, however. Without proper context, much of the information in the report could imply far more risk to human health than actually exists. This could lead lawmakers to demand excessive regulatory requirements that are not consistent with the actual risks associated with the mining and milling process.
A good example is the series of charts on pages 48–52, where all of the potential sources of radioactive exposures are listed along with potential adverse health effects. While these lists might seem scary—and anti-mining activities will surely misrepresent them as certain risks—the fact is that with modern technology, efficient regulation, and 21st-century best practices, uranium mining is safe for workers, the environment, and surrounding populations. Indeed, uranium mining is safely conducted domestically in states such as Colorado and Wyoming and internationally in countries such as Canada and Australia.
The real risk for Virginians is that lawmakers could be effectively swayed by anti-mining, anti-energy production activists into writing unreasonable mining regulations. It is not good enough to simply develop any set of regulations. The General Assembly should write regulations that are reflective of the actual risk posed by uranium mining.
Then, finally, Virginians will be able to reap the benefits in jobs and economic growth that await them.