Science can't make uranium mining safe
By Katie WhiteheadWhitehead is a native and resident of Pittsylvania County.The National Academy of Sciences report concluded that Virginia would face "steep hurdles" if it removes the moratorium on uranium mining. Arguably, the steepest hurdle is developing a culture of safety in which both regulators and employees, as well as elected officials and corporate executives, give priority to protecting our health and resources.
The NAS asserted, "Standards contained in regulatory programs represent only a starting point. A culture in which worker and public health, protection of environmental resources and preservation of ecologic resources are highly valued, and continuously assessed and strengthened, is the ultimate goal of a regulatory program."
Gov.Bob McDonnell's Uranium Working Group is supposed to answer questions left unanswered by the NAS. According to McDonnell, "The goal of the work is to determine from scientific data and expert opinion whether uranium mining and milling can be properly regulated in Virginia so as to protect public health and safety and the environment."
Scientific data and expert opinion offer, at best, a theoretical answer to the question. As the NAS reported, Virginians have no evidence from which to draw conclusions about the truly long-term impacts of storing uranium mine and mill waste that remains hazardous for many thousands of years or the shorter-term impacts on the region's reputation and overall economy.
We need more self-reflective questions and honest answers on the part of legislators and Virginia residents. Are we willing to create and sustain a truly robust regulatory program? Are we willing to commit not only ourselves but also future generations to managing the risks that come with uranium development?
The NAS report states, "The optimum approach would be for an entirely new uranium mining, processing and reclamation law or laws to be enacted. In addition, a new regulatory program would be required to implement this law or laws." Are we willing to invest in such a program? Year after year? Election after election?
Protective regulations are often seen as unnecessary obstacles by investors, managers, supervisors and even workers. Politicians routinely condemn regulations as job-killing and costly.
Creating a safety culture would require a well-conceived regulatory program with consistent funding and expert staff, but also education and training so that both industry employees and regulatory inspectors understand the need for and the value of regulations.
To build on the work of the NAS, the Uranium Working Group must not just draft a statutory and conceptual regulatory framework, but also address the broader challenge of inspiring the safety culture that is essential to proper regulation. The cultural context is critical.
On July 5, an expert investigative panel reported that the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan "was a profoundly man-made disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented." The report said, "The accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and [the plant operator] Tepco;" and that "across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance."
According to Reuters, "the report pointed to numerous missed opportunities to take steps to prevent the disaster, citing lobbying by the nuclear power companies as well as a 'safety myth' mindset that permeated the industry and the regulatory regime as among the reasons for the failure to be prepared."
Science and technology weren't the problem. The limiting factor was human nature.
It's human nature to want a simple answer — even if it's a myth: "Be happy. Don't worry — it's safe." It's human nature to forget all that's required to reduce risk.
Whether or not the moratorium is removed, we would do well to create a safety culture. A uranium tailings cell failure is not the only threat to Virginia's health and natural wealth.
If the moratorium ends, we should diligently avoid creating a safety myth. Safety is not an innate character trait. Mining and milling uranium and living with hazardous waste are inherently not safe. Science and technology can't make them safe.
Unofficial meeting on uranium ban in Pittsylvania breathes life into democracy
July 12, 2012 By: Daniel CarawanOn Monday in Pittsylvania County, residents took part in an unofficial board of supervisors’ forum to gain resident input on uranium mining and the possibility of lifting Virginia’s decade’s old ban on uranium mining in Virginia.
The forum was organized and presided over by Supervisors Marshall Ecker and Jessie Barksdale. At least 100 residents of Pittsylvania County collected in the courtroom to let the board of supervisors know their opinion on lifting Virginia’s ban on uranium mining.
According to GoDanRiver, close to two-thirds of the residents who attended disapproved of lifting the uranium mining ban while a third were in favor of the lift. The results were drawn based upon the number of attendees applauding the various speakers at the forum.
Residents opposed to uranium mining sited concerns ranging from anxieties regarding water quality, property values, businesses uprooting from the county, and an overall degradation of quality of life.
The importance of the unofficial uranium mining meeting really can’t be overstated. The forum constituted a much needed medium for the residents of Pittsylvania County to state their views on lifting the uranium mining ban in Virginia. Since these individuals will be the most directly affected by such a move, they are logically the ones who should be listened to the closest.
Up till the present however, it hasn’t seemed like the opinions of Pittsylvania County residents have been given the attention or policy weight they warrant by the McDonnell administration or the Virginia General Assembly. With hoards of pro-mining lobbyists lining the halls of Capitol Square, it’s little wonder that Pittsylvania County residents have had such difficulty getting their government to listen to their opinions and concerns.
Since these Virginians stand to lose the most from uranium mining in their communities, it is them who relevant Virginia public officials should truly be listening to. Even though the forum on Monday was unofficial, the fact that the forum was held was a recognition by leaders in Pittsylvania County that residents are still anxious to make their worries and views heard.
The forum on Monday was also a step in the right direction in a state founded upon democratic principles.
The people of Pittsylvania County have the right to decide their own fate; that’s the democratic way.
Till this point in time, the McDonnell administration in particular has not lived up to these democratic principles when it comes to the issue of uranium mining.