Planet Gore

Yes, Virginia, Yellowcake Is Safe

Interesting piece by the Manhattan Institute’s Max Schulz in Saturday’s WSJ on Virginia’s vast uranium deposits (“the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the United States — and the seventh largest in the world, according to industry monitor UX Consulting”):

Virginia is one of just four states that ban uranium mining. The ban was put in place in 1984, to calm fears that had been sparked by the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island outside of Harrisburg, Pa. in 1979.
Messrs. Bowen and Coles, who last year formed a company called Virginia Uranium, are asking the state to determine whether mining uranium really is a hazard and, if not, to lift the ban. But they’ve run into a brick wall of environmental activists who raise the specter of nuclear contamination and who are determined to prevent scientific studies of the issue.
The Piedmont Environmental Council is one of the leading opponents. It warns of the “enormous quantities of radioactive waste” produced by uranium mining.
Jack Dunavant, head of the Southside Concerned Citizens in nearby Halifax County, is another outspoken critic. He paints a picture of environmental apocalypse. “There will be a dead zone within a 30 mile radius of the mine,” he says with a courtly drawl. “Nothing will grow. Animals will die. The radiation genetically alters tissue. Animals will not be able to reproduce. We’ll see malformed fetuses.”

These claims are, of course, absolutely preposterous (just like the comical claims of the dangers of offshore oil drilling). Schulz writes:

Yet it is not as if we have no experience with uranium mining, which is in fact relatively harmless. Handled properly, the yellowcake that is extracted is no more hazardous than regular household chemicals (and unlike coal, it won’t smolder and combust).

James Kelly, who directed the nuclear engineering program at the University of Virginia for many years, says that fears about uranium mining are wildly overblown. “It’s an aesthetic nightmare, but otherwise safe in terms of releasing any significant radioactivity or pollution,” he told me. “It would be ugly to look at, but from the perspective of any hazard I wouldn’t mind if they mined across the street from me.”
The situation is rich with irony as well as uranium. While you can’t mine yellowcake, it is perfectly legal in Virginia to process enriched uranium into usable nuclear fuel, which is somewhat dangerous to handle. A subsidiary of the French nuclear giant Areva operates a fuel fabrication facility in Lynchburg 50 miles from Chatham. It has been praised by Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, as a good corporate citizen. The state is also home to four commercial nuclear reactors, which provide Virginians with 35% of their electricity. And, of course, the U.S. Navy operates nuclear ships out of Norfolk, Va.
Since Virginia is already a nuclear-friendly state that properly manages the risks of nuclear power, what sense does it make for the state to ban the safest step in the nuclear fuel cycle?

That last sentence is my favorite part. What a simple, common-sense question! The answer is equally simple: Too many politicians are beholden to environmental lobbies, afraid of being branded as earth haters and abusers. Again, the response is simple: (1) Call the enviros out for being the misinformation- and fearmongers that they are; (2) propose realistic energy solutions that will not harm people at the expense of the planet — and helping the planet and its inhabitants need not be mutually exclusive objectives; and (3) make sure that Virginia voters understand that such environmental nonsense is precisely what is driving up the cost of energy — and urge them to vote accordingly.
By the way, nuclear power is (rightly) getting increasing amounts of attention. Check out William Tucker’s “Let’s Have Some Love for Nuclear Power,” Peter Huber’s “The Carbon Curtain,” and of course Iain Murray’s “Nuclear Power? Yes, please” from National Review.

 

  

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