The General Assembly will consider a bill this winter that would end the state’s 31-year ban on uranium mining.
If approved, the state will begin drafting regulations that will allow Virginia Uranium Inc. to develop a mining and milling operation on a 3,000-acre site in Pittsylvania County. Opponents say the operation poses long-term threats to the environment and the sources of drinking water for many, including those in Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city.
Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium, expressed confidence during a Dec. 6 symposium that the operation would be safe. He spoke enthusiastically about the project’s potential to provide jobs. And he said the abundance of uranium would produce a domestic energy source that far outstrips the oil reserves Virginia hopes to tap off its Atlantic coast.
There’s "over 20 times more energy in this property than there is in all the oil that’s estimated to be off Virginia’s coast," Wales said.
That’s a big claim, so we decided to check Wales’ math.
Wales said the mining and milling would result in 119 million pounds of U308, or uranium oxide, which is the product his company will sell to electric utilities. The estimate comes from a 2008 study of the project that was commissioned by Virginia Uranium and conducted by Behre Dolbear Group Inc., Chicago, a mining engineering company..
No independent assessment of the uranium oxide yield exists. The 119 million pound estimate was cited and not questioned in a study of the risks of the mining enterprise conducted last year by the National Academy of Science.
As for oil reserves, Wales turned to estimates made by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy when a section off the coast of Virginia was considered for a lease sale in 2008 and 2009. It was estimated that 165 million barrels of oil could be pumped from the beds. President Barack Obama eventually canceled the lease sale.
The federal government, the governor and Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Jim Webb used a slightly smaller figure in 2009 and 2010 -- 130 million barrels. Estimates of the oil resources are wide-ranging. As we reported in an earlier offshore drilling claim, the surveys of the seabed off the coast are 40 to 50 years old, so all estimates are speculative.
Let’s look at the conversion from uranium and oil to the common measure for energy, the British thermal unit or Btu.
A pound of uranium oxide contains the energy equivalent of 31 barrels of fuel oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
Under those conversions, the 119 million pounds of uranium oxide would produce as much energy as 3.7 billion barrels of oil. That dwarfs the 130 million to 165 million barrels expected to come from offshore drilling.
When we divide 3.7 billion by 165 million, we get 22.4 -- or the factor of how much more energy would come from the uranium than the estimated offshore oil.
Wales said his company has received a more recent, and higher, estimate of the project’s output from engineering firms Lyntek Inc., Lakewood, Colo., and BRS Engineering, Riverton, Wyo., at about 133 million pounds, but like the oil reserves, this wouldn’t greatly affect Wales’ statement.
Wales, in advocating the need and potential of a uranium mine in Southwest Virginia, called attention to its energy-production possibilities. He said the mine will yield enough uranium oxide to produce more than 20 times the power that would come from oil the state hopes to tap off Virginia’s shore.
The math works out for Wales with room to spare.
We caution that the claim is dependent both on an estimate from the uranium project developer’s consultant and the wide-ranging, unproven estimates of oil off Virginia’s coast. Wales’ statement is based on the best available information and, as such, we rate it True.
Email from Patrick Wales, Dec. 11, 2012.
Virginia Uranium Inc., VUI Plans & Prospects, accessed Dec. 11, 2012.
Virginia Energy Resources Inc. (controls Virginia Uranium), "Coles Hill, Virginia," accessed Dec. 27, 2012.
Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Governor, 2010 Virginia Energy Plan Section 7 - Petroleum, accessed Dec. 11, 2012.
Mark Warner, "Urging faster development of off-shore energy resources," Jan. 27, 2010.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Hasten offshore lease sale, McDonnell urges White House," Dec. 30, 2009.
PolitiFact Virginia, "Moran says drilling off Virginia’s coast will net only $40 million for U.S. over 10 years," March 23, 2012.
Virginia Energy Resources Inc., "Preliminary Economic Assessment Update," Sept. 6, 2012.
National Academies Press, "Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific, Technical, Environmental, Human Health and Safety, and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium Mining and Processing in Virginia," 2012.
Xemplar Energy Corporation, "About Uranium," accessed Dec. 17, 2012.
Argonne National Laboratory, "Uranium Quick Facts," accessed Dec. 17, 2012.
Energy Information Agency, "Energy Calculator," accessed Dec. 17, 2012.
Emails with Jonathan Cogan, spokesman for the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Dec. 19, 2012, and Jan. 2, 2013.
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