Virginia UraniumMay 2, 2010
This undulating farmland is situated about 20 miles north of Danville, Virginia (best known as the last Confederate capital). From the surface, it could be anywhere in rural Southside Virginia: cattle graze in pastures surrounded by pine forest, and stately homes—some more than two hundred years old and occupied by descendants of the settlers who built them—stake out the high ground. What’s so exciting about this particular piece of land is what lies beneath the surface: uranium! And this is not just your minor pegmatite outcropping or localized radioactive anomaly. With an estimated 110 million pounds of U3O8 reserves (at a cutoff grade of 0.025%), it’s considered the largest uranium deposit in the United States.
The Coles Hill Uranium Deposit, as it is known, contains resources currently worth billions of dollars. That’s a lot of money. So naturally, there is a commercial venture aiming to profitably extract the uranium. Virginia Uranium, Inc. is owned mostly by the families under whose land the deposit is located. Last January, Chief Geologist Joe Aylor (second from right) was kind enough to show us core samples and discuss the geology of the deposit at the firm’s office in Chatham before taking us out to an exposure of the radioactive ore along Coles Hill Road.
The 500-million-year-old Leatherwood Granite harbors the uranium at Coles Hill. Specific uranium minerals are reported to be poorly-soluble phosphates, e.g. barium uranyl phosphate; the mineralization is of epigenetic origin—perhaps hydrothermal activity or transport out of newer Triassic sediments. In any case, our scintillation detectors were pleasantly excited by Dr. Aylor’s cores, and we couldn’t wait to hit the field to collect our very own specimens.
Here we are, atop America’s largest uranium deposit! We parked our cars in a spot where the scintillators indicated an exposure of the radioactive orebody, walking distance from Mr. Coles’s farm (see below). Ordinary rockhounding is virtually impossible in the snow, but snow does not stop gamma rays.
Richard Hull (left) excavates the berm beside the freshly-bladed road for a spicy chunk of rock. At right is Richard’s bagful of radioactive granite chunks, all located with his trusty TSA plastic scintillator. These would be sparkling, gleaming things if only we could see gamma radiation. But since we can’t, the ore appears mundane and unappealing, clad as it is in a tenacious layer of pasty red clay.
The hottest pieces of radioactive saprolite I collected read about 5000 CPM on a Ludlum 44-9 pancake GM tube. This is respectable to be sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the more concentrated ore that can be found near Moab, Utah. Richard Hull pulverized some average ore collected at Coles Hill and compared the gamma radiation countrate with that from samples in a calibrated ore grade test kit. He arrived at an equivalent concentration of 0.253% U3O8. Richard also noted UV fluorescence along fractures in the rock.
This is the Coles Hill farmhouse, just north of where we found our specimens. The Coles family has lived on this land since 1785. If uranium mining goes forward, Walter Coles says he’ll stick around to watch, and any mining will leaving the historic home intact. But the big question of whether mining will occur is unresolved; Virginia has had a moratorium on uranium mining since 1981. Coles Hill has become a focal point for contention over the moratorium, as well as the broader nuclear energy debate. Virginia Uranium claims the positive impacts of mining will include the creation of 300-500 new jobs and an annual gross revenue of $300 million, while providing a valuable domestic energy source (most uranium for nuclear fuel is currently imported). In 2008, then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama offered a cautious endorsement of sorts: “Virginia has the potential to be a national leader in uranium mining, and development of uranium resources in Pittsylvania County could create hundreds of jobs in that part of the state.” Opponents, such as the Southern Environmental Law Center, cite the threat of water pollution, the industry’s poor environmental legacy in states where mining has occurred, and the high population density of Virginia as reasons to continue the moratorium.