Environmentalists were scratching their heads in early August when pro-uranium mining advocates, led by Virginia Uranium, filed suit in federal court to force an end to Virginia’s 33-year-old moratorium on uranium mining.
The issue seemed dead just a couple of years ago when after bitter fights over prospects for mining 119 million pounds of uranium in Pittsylvania County.
Opposing mining were green groups and officials of cities such as Virginia Beach which get drinking water from lakes downstream of the Coles Hill Farm tracts where the mining would take place.
Pro-mining supporters claim that mining can be done safely and that nuclear power is far less responsible for climate change than fossil fuels such as coal.
But why the lawsuit now?
One possibility could be that global uranium prices are finally showing signs of strengthening. Last year, spot prices were in the low $30 per pound level and have settled in the high $30 per pound range after shooting briefly to around $45 a pound last winter.
Uranium prices around the world crashed in 2011 after a tsunami and equipment failures caused meltdowns at four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daichi station in Japan. Afterwards, Japan shut down all of its reactors, which supply about 30 percent of its power. Germany chimed in with plans to dump nukes in the future.
That was then. Japan is slowly restarting nukes. Last month, it restarted part of its Sendai plant. And in China, despite its current economic doldrums, there are plans for 50 new reactors by 2020, according to a report from investment bank JP Morgan.
It appears that price pressure is back on uranium and mining firms in places such as Australia and Kazakhstan are gearing up. For Virginia Uranium’s project to be a go, prices have to be in the $45 to $75 a pound range, which they were in the latter part of the last decade when the Virginia project was pitched.
Virginia has four nuclear reactors, all owned by Dominion and may build a fifth at North Anna, about 70 miles from Richmond. It is going through the approval process and costs are reported to be $19 billion.
Are nukes safe? Good question. Despite their extreme cost, they are reliable if well run. As a reporter, I have reported from Ukraine on Chernobyl and in 2011 was near Fukushima just outside of the zone that had been closed due to radiation.
I was in a beautiful provincial town about an hour north by fast train from Tokyo. The leaves were changing and there was a festival. The local newspapers were filled with stories about how former residents could get government compensation for irradiated homes that had been abandoned.