As tobacco wanes, a Virginia farmer wants to harvest his uranium
Walter Coles Sr. stood on a hill overlooking the Virginia pasture land that his family has farmed since it was deeded to them by Thomas Jefferson, motioning with a sweep of his hand to the expanse of radioactive treasure buried below.
“There’s uranium everywhere,” Coles said of fields that had once been filled with tobacco.
The mine would bring hundreds of jobs and tax revenue to an area that’s yet to recover from the decline in tobacco farming and textile manufacturing.
In fact, his land holds the largest-known deposit of uranium in the U.S., an estimated 119 million pounds that could displace imports that constitute more than 90 percent of the uranium used by the nation’s nuclear power plants.
But the cache, once valued at $6 billion, can’t be mined.
The Virginia legislature, after the Three Mile Island nuclear power station meltdown in 1979, imposed a moratorium on mining uranium in the state. But Coles is fighting the legality of the ban through Virginia Uranium Inc., a company he formed with some Canadian investors. The case has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments will be heard on Nov. 5.
The case has drawn the support of the Trump administration—which is considering slapping a tariff on imported uranium—and has put Virginia in the bull’s-eye of a national debate about energy security, nuclear power and the environment. It has also pitted neighbor against neighbor and husband against wife in the rural community 30 miles from the North Carolina border in Pittsylvania County.
“We don’t need uranium mining around here,” said Charlie Atkins, a 57-year-old landscaper from the nearby town of Gretna (population 1,250). “Who’s going to pay the price if there’s an accident? The people that live around here. It’s going to kill us all.”
His wife, Alice, said she’s less worried about the risks. “We do need some more places to open up around here for jobs,” she said as the two prepared to tuck into lunch at a local burger joint. “Everything is a risk, I guess.”
Environmental groups have long opposed the project—which would be the only uranium mine in the eastern U.S. They’ve been joined by lawmakers from as far away as Raleigh, North Carolina, who’ve expressed concern that radioactive waste could poison the state’s drinking water and contaminate popular fishing and boating sites.
A study commissioned several years ago by the city of Virginia Beach raised the possibility of radiation from mine waste flowing downstream and contaminating the city’s drinking water supply in the event of a catastrophic storm. Virginia Uranium has dismissed that study, saying the assumptions in it are flawed.
“The whole thing is an environmental disaster,” said Will Cleveland, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit legal group that filed a brief opposing Virginia Uranium’s efforts. “You’ve got acid mine wash. You’ve got particulate matter thrown in the air. It’s a massive industrial operation in the middle of a farm.”
A National Academies of Sciences report on lifting the moratorium, which was commissioned by the Virginia State Legislature, concluded in 2011 that “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted” before uranium mining can be done safely. The study, which lawmakers barred from making a recommendation on the project, said “rigorous implementation” of best practices would be needed if mining were to move forward in the state.
Coles said the study shows that mining could be done safely, and that radioactive waste could be stashed in lined underground storage cells to prevent groundwater contamination.
“There are just so many places where it’s been done safely,” said Coles, 80, with the hint of a Southern drawl.
The Coles family first learned of the buried riches on their property in the 1970s when a crew from the Marline Uranium Corp. detected the potential for uranium after surveying the area by helicopter. A Geiger counter accidentally left on in their pickup truck let them know when they reached the right spot.
After initial efforts to mine the site faltered, Coles and his son, Walter Coles Jr., who was then an investment banker in New York, started Virginia Uranium in 2007, after uranium prices skyrocketed. A lobbying effort by the company to have the state ban overturned included flying lawmakers to see uranium mines in France and Canada. That effort effectively ended after then-Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, announced his opposition to ending the uranium mining ban days after his election in 2014.
Uranium is a ubiquitous element with traces embedded in minerals all over the world. But it usually isn’t found in concentrations that make it economically viable to mine. The uranium at the Coles Hill deposit is set in granite ore, and plans call for it to be harvested using a conventional underground mine, though that’s subject to approval by regulators, said Julie Rautio, a Virginia Uranium spokeswoman.
The legal argument in the case centers around a 1954 law known as the Atomic Energy Act, which grants authority over milling and radioactive mine waste known as tailings to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Virginia says the law didn’t affect the longstanding power of states to regulate mining of all types within their borders. Cale Jaffe, director of the Environmental and Regulatory Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, said language in the 1954 law supports that view.
The project’s fate needs the Trump administration to slap a 25% quota on uranium imports.
“The text of the Atomic Energy Act explicitly leaves that authority to the state,” said Jaffe, who co-authored a brief in support of keeping the ban in place.
Virginia Uranium argues the state’s ban was motivated by radiological safety concerns related to millings and tailings regulated by the federal—not state—government.
“Virginia can’t regulate that directly,” said John Ohlendorf, an attorney with Cooper & Kirk PLLC in Washington who’s representing Virginia Uranium. “We think if the court were to rule against us that would be a sea change in the landscape here and would do huge damage to the atomic energy industry.”
Those who have weighed in supporting Virginia Uranium including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and conservative Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Those lining up against lifting the ban include the attorneys general of Republican states such as Texas and Indiana.
The U.S. Commerce Department is investigating the companies’ claims that uranium imports threaten national security, and a decision could come next summer.
“If there are quotas, there would definitely be a market for it,” said Chris Gadomski, a nuclear analyst for Bloomberg NEF. “There is going to be a scramble to get U.S. uranium into the system.”
In the U.S., nuclear reactors are closing as the industry struggles to compete with cheap and abundant natural gas. The amount of uranium purchased by nuclear power plant owners in the U.S.—almost all of which is imported from countries such as Canada, Australia and Russia—declined by 15 percent in 2017 from the 43 million pounds the previous year, the lowest amount since 1998, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Department.
Uranium prices have declined to about $28 a pound, far below the $64 per pound the Virginia Uranium says is needed for the project to be economic.
Back on his farm, Coles said he was confident the price of uranium would increase as countries such as China and Saudi Arabia continue to build nuclear reactors. And after waiting more than three decades, he said he was used to being patient.
“I’m at peace we are trying to do the right thing,” he said.
(By Ari Natter)