Press Release from Senator John Watkins: January 31, 2013

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RICHMOND, VA:  Senator John Watkins’ Statement on SB1353
It is with great disappointment that I have requested that the legislation putting in place the regulatory structure and corporate governance for the mining of uranium in south central Virginia be stricken from the committee calendar.  Additionally, I will be requesting that the uranium severance tax legislation be stricken.
It is very frustrating to me that I have been unable to convince some of my colleagues that this effort can be accomplished safely and economically here in Virginia.  Indeed, it would be the beginning of an entirely new era in Virginia in terms of research and development in a field to which we are already committed.  It is frustrating as well that there is a lack of understanding regarding the world marketplace and the availability of uranium for use as nuclear fuel.  Undeniably, nuclear power production is the cleanest system that we have developed to date that is capable of producing energy at a scale that not only is needed in Virginia but certainly across our nation.
The emotion and fear that some have inspired on this subject have, for now at least, overcome the science and the engineering that we have worked so hard in Virginia to elevate in our educational systems and in our research facilities.  It also undermines the consensus for private-sector investment that we have promoted across Virginia in defense, power generation, and nuclear medicine.  Indeed, the failure to lift this ban is a definite stigma and blot on our reputation as a pro-business, pro-energy, pro-property rights state.  It says to the business community here and around the country that Virginia may not be as open for business as we claim it is.
This is an issue that a lot of people have put a lot of time on over the last several years, and it is not going to go away.   It is not going away because the Coles Hill uranium deposit is a unique natural asset and a great blessing and benefit for the Commonwealth of Virginia and for the people of Virginia.
Under less than 200 acres of land at Coles Hill lies seven (7) billion dollars’ worth of uranium-the most valuable uranium deposit in the United States and one of the most valuable in the world.
For those of you who have promoted offshore drilling-and I support it with you-the energy that the Coles Hill uranium deposit would supply is 22 times greater than all of Virginia’s offshore oil reserves combined.
And while most people recognize that nuclear power is absolutely vital for America’s and Virginia’s future, few seem to understand that our country now depends on foreign suppliers for more than 90 percent of the uranium we use.
We all are familiar with the “Not in My Back Yard” syndrome, and I respect the views of many good people whose fears have been excited by uranium mining opponents.  But it does not have to be this way.  Our friends in Canada have managed to rise above the unfounded fears and have become the world’s second largest uranium supplier, with a 100% safety record, 70% public support, and a booming resource-based economy with a triple-AAA bond rating.  They’ve come here and shown us it can be done safely because they’ve done it.
But here in this country our politics have become so dysfunctional that we have managed to take an energy-rich America and turn it into an energy-dependent America.  It’s killing our country’s future.  And if we here in Virginia are not going to set a positive example of safe and sensible energy policy, where can we ever expect a positive American example to come from?
So, NO, this issue is not going away.
It is not going away because it is not good stewardship to leave a God-given natural asset worth $7 billion buried in the ground while our American economy suffers.
And it is not good stewardship to leave our country’s largest uranium deposit buried in the ground while we are forced to depend, not only on friends like Canada, but on potential adversaries like Russia and Kazakhstan, to fuel our nuclear power plants.
So where are we on this issue?
Well, the truth is a lot of progress has been made over the last couple of years in understanding the benefits and the risks of uranium mining in Virginia.
  • We on the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission-and especially the bipartisan subcommittee chaired by Delegate Ware-have spent several years securing detailed health, safety and socioeconomic studies.  Those studies document the huge benefits of mining uranium and provide a roadmap for how to mitigate risks and ensure safety.
  • We have heard from the experts and from the public.  In all, there have been 37 public meetings and hearings held on this issue by the various state and national entities looking at it.  (There were 17 public hearings in the last year alone.)
  • We have heard from major national think-tanks.  And from the Heritage Foundation on the right to the Brookings Institution on the left, their experts have all told us we should proceed to set up a regulatory program for mining our Virginia uranium.
  • The Governor has been helpful.  At our Commission’s request, he assembled an inter-agency working group that worked all last year and provided a framework showing how a regulatory program with state-of-the-art safeguards could be implemented.
  • And after all this expert analysis, public input and careful study, our Coal and Energy Commission earlier this month voted overwhelmingly to support legislation lifting the moratorium.
Why, then, am I striking the bill?
The answer, quite simply, is that this Legislature is not ready to vote up or down on lifting the moratorium.  I have heard that from many members.  They say they want to see the process continue to move forward, but they have heard from opponents that there are still “too many unanswered questions” to act now on the moratorium.
“Too many unanswered questions.”  We hear that again and again:
  • Too many unanswered questions about the safeguards that would be put in place …
  • Too many unanswered questions about the local conditions …
  • Too many unanswered questions about what the regulations will say …
Fair enough.  Then let’s get the answers to these questions before we vote.
Let the agencies proceed to draft the regulations under the Administrative Process Act, with all its statutory protections for transparency and public participation.
Let’s get the answers that the opponents keep demanding about what the regs will say and what the safeguards will be, so that we have those answers when we vote on this moratorium.
This is not only my opinion.  I have consulted with our two leaders – Senator Norment and Senator Saslaw – and they both support this approach.  I have heard many in the other body express a similar opinion.
When Ms. France appeared before our Subcommittee to report on the results of the Governor’s inter-agency working group, she made it clear that the executive branch agencies already have the expertise and resources to draft regulations if they are so directed.
By the way, this action is entirely consistent with the wording of the moratorium itself (section 45.1-283), which leaves the door open to the development of regulations.  It says only that “permit applications for uranium mining shall not be accepted” until the General Assembly adopts a statute on uranium mining.  In other words, the agencies cannot implement regulations until the General Assembly gives its approval, but there is no reason they cannot exercise their existing authority under the APA to promulgate the regulations so we have those provisions before us when a future Legislature votes on whether to keep or lift the moratorium.
I am striking the bills today, then, in deference to the momentary political realities, but also in deference to those who say they want answers to the unanswered questions.  I hope the Governor will direct his agencies to proceed under the APA to answer these questions via duly adopted regulations.  And if he feels he lacks authority to do so, he certainly has the means to put that issue expeditiously before this Legislature.
To do anything less than proceed with regulations is to bury our heads in the sand along with the Nation’s most valuable uranium deposit.
Our founding fathers did not let fear override their actions when they fought for their future – for the freedoms and way of life we enjoy today.   I – for one – refuse to live with fear.   I will not ignore the future, and I will not ignore this issue.