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The General Assembly is the proper part of government to act on uranium

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Date published: 2/5/2013

TODAY is Crossover Day in the General Assembly, the last day on which a bill may move from one chamber to the other. Among the measures hung up and unable to progress is a bill in the Senate that would lift Virginia's 31-year ban on uranium mining.

State Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, withdrew his uranium bill last Thursday when it became clear he did not have sufficient votes to carry it forward. "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," he said in a statement.

But Mr. Watkins didn't completely give up: He executed a lateral pass in the direction of Gov. McDonnell, who, the senator says, has the authority himself to set state scribes to scribbling down the regulations that would be necessary should uranium mining be approved in the future.

Mr. Watkins' maneuver, however tricky, is ill-advised. Not that Mr. McDonnell is a bad choice: On the contrary, this all-of-the-above energy governor has been thoughtful and restrained on the uranium issue. But calling on him to let the regulators start writing is like a failed fake punt: It would appear to move uranium mining forward without actually doing it. Why spend the staff time if the issue hasn't the support of the General Assembly?

An estimated $7 billion of uranium lies beneath the ground at Coles Hill in Chatham. It's the richest deposit east of the Mississippi, enough to power every reactor currently in use in the U.S. for two years. Mining it would bring economic activity to a depressed area, and would ensure Virginia's prominence as an energy supplying state.

It may seem to advocates like a no-brainer to harvest this resource. But uranium is like no other energy source. Like the little girl with the little curl, when it's good, it's very good and when it's bad, it's awful--and awful for a long, long time. Studies have not been reassuring regarding the safety of mining at Coles Hill. Any negative impacts could be widespread.

Lifting the state's ban requires careful consideration from a broad range of officials elected by a wide swath of voters. That sounds like those ensconced in the statehouse--not the one who lives in the Executive Mansion. The governor should pass the ball right back to the Assembly, where it belongs.