RICHMOND, Va. -- When a team from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission meets with the public Thursday, the prickliest aspect of ending Virginia's 30-year ban on uranium mining will be up for discussion: processing the radioactive ore to create fuel for nuclear power plants.
The public meeting with the NRC scientists will be in Chatham, within 10 miles of the Coles Hill uranium deposit.
The talk of ending the moratorium has been spurred by a mining company's proposal to begin tapping the largest known uranium deposit in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world.
Uranium has never been mined on the East Coast on the scale proposed by the company. Only a handful of mills in the U.S. process the ore, none on the East Coast. Mining opponents warn that Virginia's wet, storm-prone environment is a risky place to process uranium and store its waste, called tailings. Most uranium mining has been done in the arid West.
Opponents fear a hurricane or torrential rains could breach impoundments of the radioactive-laced tailings, scattering them in streams and rivers used for public water supplies and contaminating farmland.
NRC officials said they are aware of the challenges.
"The higher rain conditions are something we would zero in on and take a harder look," said William von Till, chief of the uranium recovery branch with the NRC's Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs. He is one of three NRC officials making presentations at the meeting.
"If they would have to build a more robust system that would withstand the type of weather you would get down there, then that's what they would have to do," von Till said in an interview.
Virginia Uranium Inc., based in Chatham, has said it can safely mine and mill the uranium and create hundreds of jobs and a $135 million economic impact for Southside Virginia. The economically depressed region near the North Carolina line is known primarily for textiles and tobacco.
The company estimates the value of the 119 million-pound uranium deposit at $7 billion to $10 billion.
Before any ore can be removed, however, the General Assembly would have to vote to end the ban imposed in 1982.
Gov. Bob McDonnell created the Uranium Working Group within weeks after the release of a study by the National Academy of Sciences in December. The $1.4 million study, financed by Virginia Uranium, concluded the state would face steep challenges to ensure uranium can be mined and milled safely. It did not make a recommendation on lifting the ban.
The General Assembly was expected to take up the uranium mining ban in the 2012 session, but McDonnell asked lawmakers to set the issue aside until his working group could analyze several studies and develop a draft regulatory framework.
Virginia would have regulatory authority over the mining itself. Once the ore is removed from the ground for milling the state can continue to exercise regulatory oversight or cede it to the NRC.