MR. JONATHAN WILSON
I'm Jonathan Wilson in today for Rebecca Sheir, and welcome back to "Metro Connection," where our focus this hour is on energy. We've already spent some time in Maryland and the District. Now, we're going to head to Virginia, which his embroiled in a heated debate about how, if at all, it should take advantage of a potentially lucrative underground resource. But unlike the debate sweeping across Maryland, it's not shale gas that's at issue, it's uranium, the radioactive element that can fuel nuclear power plants.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Virginia's uranium deposit isn't exactly a new discovery. Mining industry geologists confirmed its existence three decades ago. But Virginia's legislators still haven't given those who want to mine it, the all clear to start digging it up, and many environmental advocates say that's the way it should stay.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Patrick Wales, for one, does not agree with those environmental advocates. He's walking down a gravel road in Chatham, Va., about 20 miles from the North Carolina border. That buzzing you hear isn't coming from a bug or an insect, its coming from a device called a scintillometer, which measures very small changes in radioactivity.
MR. PATRICK WALES
This is making a lot of noise, and the numbers are gonna be going up significantly.
Wales works for Virginia Uranium. The company was founded by the Coles family, which has owned and lived on this piece of land, known as the Coles Hill property, since before the War of 1812. He walks a few more yards and lowers the scintillometer near some rocks by the side of the road.
Put that down there. And we're standing on a deposit right now that has over 22 times more energy than all of the oil and gas that's estimated to be off Virginia's coast. Located all on 100 acres, that's pretty remarkable.
Wales is a local himself, and he bristles a little at those who suggest Virginia Uranium and uranium mining proponents aren't worried about maintaining the natural beauty of rural, Southside Virginia. He says it's that natural beauty that brought him back home after getting his geology degree out of state.
I was one of those, like a lot of folks, who went off to college thinking that would be the last time I ever saw Danville or the Southside of Virginia, because there are not a lot of opportunities for folks to make a living around here, and that's unfortunate.
Wales says the Coles Hill deposit could change that in a big way, if the state lifts the moratorium on uranium mining, a moratorium that has been in place basically since the deposit was first discovered. Some estimates put the value of the uranium at Coles Hill at $7 billion, and that's value that proponents say translates into high-paying local jobs.
There are not a lot of opportunities that have the chance to bring 1,000 jobs to this area, and these are good-paying jobs. These are jobs that will pay $65,000 a year. You compare that to our median household income in this county, and it's less than $30,000-- household income, not individual.
Among local residents, it can be tough to get people to talk about the Uranium mining issue. But not because there's any shortage of passion on either side, in fact, it's just the opposite.
Inside Pat's place, a popular local lunch spot in the middle of Chatham, an elderly man sharing a meal with his wife blurts out his feelings on the uranium controversy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1
People who are against it don't know what the hell they're talking about.
He won't give me his name, but he does give a reason.
The people who are against it are so against it, if they knew my name they'd probably burn my house down.
And you're not joking?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1
Drive through Chatham and you'll see dozens of green and yellow pro-mining yard signs. One slogan reads, "I dig uranium. It's about jobs." But you'll see just as many black and white signs urging passersby to say "No to Uranium Mining." Gena Mays works as a waitress in the pizza shop across the street from Pat's place. She says she'd like to see Coles Hill remain untouched.
MS. GENA MAYS
I think everybody should just leave it like it is. It's been just fine for years and years, and now everybody wants to change stuff.
Cale Jaffe is the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center's Charlottesville office. He says the main problem with the Coles Hill site is its location within the watershed of the Roanoke River, which provides drinking water to 1.1 million people. Jaffe points out that the vast majority of material that would be brought out of the ground at the project would end up as waste product that would have to be stored on-site.
MR. CALE JAFFE
According to The National Academy of Sciences, the waste from that project retains 85 percent of its original radioactivity. And you've gotta store that radioactive waste, in the Roanoke River watershed, in perpetuity.
Patrick Wales, of Virginia Uranium, points out that a study by Virginia Tech shows that a properly placed waste containment facility built on-site poses no risk to the water supply, even in the event of 38 inches of rain in 24 hours, a scenario not even approached during super storm Sandy. Wales says the Coles family and Virginia Uranium are in favor of even more research and independent study of the site before any mining begins.
Jaffe says uranium mining is already one of the most closely examined environmental issues in recent Virginia history, and the results, he says, are in.
We've spent millions of dollars and years in Virginia studying this issue, and the studies validate our core concerns. And that's why this year the general assembly rejected an effort to lift the ban.
But proponents still insist that momentum is building for their cause. Patrick Wales says it's important to remember that Virginians are no strangers to the benefits of nuclear energy. The state is home to two nuclear power plants and the nation's nuclear-powered naval fleet.
It's really important to point out that nuclear power is one of the safest, most reliable, affordable means of generating electricity. And if we are going to get, as a country, very serious about things like climate change, nuclear may not necessarily be the answer, but there is no answer without nuclear.
Now Virginia Uranium and its opponents are waiting to see whether Gov. Bob McDonnell will attempt to address the Uranium mining moratorium by going around the legislature. Even if McDonnell holds off on taking up the issue, it will likely continue to be a bone of contention in this November's gubernatorial election.
To see what the Coles Hill property looks like and to find out more about the uranium that it holds, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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