You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Nuclear Standoff

What happens when you discover uranium in your backyard.

As is often the case with tales of great discovery, the details of how buried treasure came to be found beneath the rolling countryside of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, have grown a little gauzy over the last 30 years. But here is the story as the prospectors tell it. One day, in March 1979, a man named Byrd Berman, a geologist by training, was driving down a road through cattle pastures when the scintillometer sitting on the dashboard of his Hertz rental car began to beep. The device, similar to a Geiger counter, was designed to detect the gamma radiation naturally emitted by uranium. As he watched the needle on the scintillometer dance, Berman was certain he’d hit something huge, fissile, and extraordinarily valuable.

Uranium, as everyone knows, is used to make the fuel for nuclear reactors, and, at the time, it was in huge demand. Nuclear power was considered to be the energy source of the future, and America was in the midst of building or planning hundreds of plants. All of them needed uranium. Berman was working for a company called Marline Uranium and a boss named Al Swanson, who was himself something of a prospecting legend. Swanson had discovered a rich uranium strike in his home country of Canada, and he thought he saw some geological similarities to that deposit along America’s eastern seaboard. Specifically, he was intrigued by a vast network of depressions known as the Triassic Basins, formations created around 200 million years ago by the tectonic processes that split North America from Africa, opening up the Atlantic Ocean. Swanson dispatched men to canvass the basins from North Carolina to New Jersey, but, for a long time, nothing panned out--until Byrd Berman happened to drive past the right farm.

Returning to the company’s office, Berman knew he’d hit a memorable strike. “I came in and I said there was no question in my mind that we had fifty million pounds,” Berman recalled recently. “I was kind of conservative.” The next day, he returned to the same place with another Marline geologist, Henry Singletary. When they got to the right spot, the prospectors pulled over. “Him being senior man on the thing, it was me that had to get down in the muddy ditch and dig the sample,” Singletary says. He took a hammer and knocked loose a few pieces of rock, which gave an off-the-charts reading for radioactivity. Later, the samples were found to contain four to five times as much uranium as is typically found in commercial mines. And it was right there at the surface, meaning the ore would be fairly simple to extract.

“I said, ‘Well, here’s the biggest find in a long time of uranium,’” Berman recalls. That night, he went back to his hotel room savoring his luck. “I turned on the television and what were they talking about? They were talking about a strange place called Three Mile Island.” That very day, as Berman remembers it, there had been an accident at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. (The coincidental timing may sound like a tall tale, but Singletary’s memory was similar: He thinks their discovery occurred the same week as Three Mile Island, though maybe not the same day.) While there were no deaths as a result of the partial meltdown, a significant amount of radioactive gas escaped into the atmosphere. The accident--combined with the release of a reactor disaster movie, The China Syndrome, around the same time--would transform the way Americans regarded nuclear power. “So I was elated in the morning,” Berman says, “and, by night, it fell apart.”

What Berman and Singletary had found is today thought to be one of the ten richest uranium deposits in the world--containing up to 120 million pounds. But, while Marline did a lot of exploratory drilling in the area, the company never got to dig it up. Amid the anti-nuclear backlash that followed Three Mile Island, Virginians rose up in protest against Marline’s mining plans. Actress Sissy Spacek, recently transplanted to a farm outside Charlottesville, visited the state capitol to tell starstruck legislators about alleged connections between uranium and cancer, and Governor Charles Robb signed a moratorium on mining uranium, which was meant to give the state government time to impose regulations. Instead, while a task force deliberated, market forces finished the work environmentalists had begun. U.S. utilities pulled the plug on roughly 100 planned nuclear plants, partly due to safety issues, but also because reactors already under construction were going way over budget. In 1984, the state uranium task force issued a qualified endorsement of mining, concluding it could be done with stringent safeguards. But Marline had run into financing problems and abandoned the project. The moratorium stayed in place. Meanwhile, the nuclear power industry went into a long period of somnolence, and nearly all of America’s uranium mines closed down. Berman and Singletary’s discovery was left in the ground--though it was never quite forgotten.

On a misty morning last year, Walter Coles and I drove out to the site of the deposit. A ruddy 71-year-old with a syrupy Old Virginia accent, Coles owns the land on which the uranium was found, and he retired there a few years ago. The 750-acre farm, known as Coles Hill, has been in his family since the 1790s. He keeps 200 head of cattle there, along with three Labrador retrievers. “Farmers care about their land, they love it, and they want to protect it and pass it on to their heirs,” Coles said. He turned onto a gravel lane lined with ancient oaks, and we pulled up to his Georgian brick plantation house. Next to it was a small graveyard with the tombstones of a long line of Coles men: planters, members of Congress, officers of the Revolution and the Confederacy.

I was visiting Coles because, after decades out of the spotlight, uranium mining in general--and his family’s deposit in particular--is once again in the news. Over the last few years, a new generation of policymakers has been revisiting the question of nuclear power. The scientific certainty of global warming now seems a far more immediate danger than the unlikely threat of radioactive disaster. Nuclear plants give off negligible amounts of greenhouse gases: an estimated 21 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, in contrast to as much as 700 grams for natural gas and 1,300 for coal. Fission looks like a practical compromise if you want to cut carbon emissions and accept that the world’s not about to meet its energy needs through wind, geothermal, or solar power.

In 2005, Congress passed legislation that was meant to encourage the construction of new reactors through tax credits and $18.5 billion in loan guarantees. Recently, President Obama announced the first of those guarantees, for a plant in Georgia, which would be the first one commissioned in the United States since Three Mile Island. Of course, nuclear power still faces plenty of political hurdles, including skepticism from many on the left. Still, even some environmentalists, such as the venerable activist Stewart Brand, have offered endorsements, and Senator John Kerry--a longtime friend of the movement--co-wrote an op-ed last fall with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, arguing that nuclear power has to be a “core component” of any plan to reduce America’s carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Europe and especially China are moving ahead much faster with nuclear expansion. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, a think tank within the Department of Energy, forecasts that the amount of electricity generated by nuclear plants will jump by almost 50 percent worldwide over the next two decades. And uranium production will have to increase significantly in order to keep up with demand.

The question is where all that uranium will come from. Currently, the United States gets the vast majority of its uranium from abroad, and the only mines in the country are west of the Mississippi. But geologists suspect that the Coles Hill deposit is not isolated. Scientists argue about the origins of the ore, but it’s most likely a remnant of the same ancient tectonic processes that created the Triassic Basins--meaning that there could be similar deposits up and down the East Coast. Robert Bodnar, a geochemistry professor at Virginia Tech, has spent the last two years studying how the uranium got to Coles Hill. “I think there’s a very high probability that there are other deposits of the same size, same grade, as Coles Hill located in the eastern United States,” he told me. If he is right, if what’s underneath Coles Hill isn’t just some geologic anomaly, but rather the tip of a much larger potential source of energy and wealth, then it means that many East Coast communities could soon be in for the same sort of political donnybrook that has been unfolding in Pittsylvania County ever since 2007--the year Walter Coles decided it was time to try, once again, to do something with all that uranium.

Coles returned to the family farm in 2004, after serving several decades overseas with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He worked to win hearts and minds in Vietnam--where he’d earlier fought as a military pilot--and promoted privatization in Moscow following the fall of the Soviet Union. During his final stint abroad, in Afghanistan, some officials from Hamid Karzai’s government came to seek Coles’s advice. They said that a group of French investors had arrived in the country to search for uranium. That got Coles thinking. Uranium prices were starting to rise from a deep trough, spurred by increased demand for nuclear power and the impending expiration in 2013 of the Megatons to Megawatts program, under which the United States and Russia had agreed back in 1993 to turn old Soviet atomic-weapons stockpiles into commercial reactor fuel. The cost of a pound of uranium went from $20 in 2004, to $30 in 2005, to $40 at the beginning of 2006.

So it’s not surprising that, when Coles retired to Virginia, mining companies were waiting for him. “They’d show up on the doorstep and say, ‘Well, here’s this farmer here, we can do a quick deal with him and get control of his ore body,’” Coles recalls. The world uranium market is dominated by a handful of multinational mining companies; Coles says every one of them stopped by. Right in his parlor, one offered him and a neighbor checks made out for a million dollars--and, when he held out, countered with a sum many times larger. But Coles, whose father had leased the rights to the minerals beneath the family’s land to Marline back in the 1970s, had a different idea for how he was going to handle the uranium this time around. “That’s the point that I decided, if it was going to be done, I was going to form my own company and do it in a way that I could assure that the interests of the community would be utmost,” Coles told me. He got some neighboring landowners to join him. His son Walter Jr., who was working in New York as an energy sector analyst at a hedge fund, started passing around a dissertation that a Virginia Tech graduate student had written a few years before, analyzing the size and grade of the Coles Hill deposit. One copy ended up with Peter Grosskopf, president of a Canadian firm called Cormark Securities, who helped Coles and his family raise $22 million in private investment for their new company, Virginia Uranium.

At the time, early 2007, the uranium market was going through the roof. Driven in part by curbs on supply, such as an accident that disabled a big new Canadian mine, in part by a wider energy boom, and in part by raw speculation by hedge funds, the market price of uranium raced from $45 per pound in June 2006 to $136 per pound the following summer. At that valuation, the ore under Coles Hill was worth more than $16 billion. The company hired a staff, headed by Norman Reynolds, a former top Marline executive who’d stayed in Virginia, and began gearing up for an initial public offering. Uranium was about to make the Coles family very rich. There was just one problem: The mining moratorium signed by Governor Robb back in 1982 was still in force. And many of Coles’s neighbors were determined to keep it that way.

One evening last year, in a hearing room behind a columned Greek Revival courthouse, the board of supervisors of Pittsylvania County gaveled its regular meeting to order. The business that night was the usual stuff of local government: renaming a road, rezoning some properties, making a $500 contribution to a hometown contestant in the state beauty pageant. It was only when the board opened up the meeting for public comments that the night’s discussion turned to matters of life and death. First to the microphone was a farmer named Phillip Lovelace, who warned of contamination in local wells. “I tell you,” he implored the supervisors, “uranium mining is not what we need in this county.” “We want our water protected, we want our air protected, we want our land protected,” said another speaker, who identified herself as Deborah “Treehugger” Dix. “Nowhere in the United States or China or Australia has uranium mining been done safely.”

Most of the speakers that night were members of a group called The Alliance, one of several grassroots organizations that have taken up the fight against Walter Coles, bringing their argument to every conceivable forum: the county supervisors, the state legislature, a proliferating number of alarmist blogs. “They find examples of these horror stories,” Coles counters, “and that’s what they use for their fear tactics.” The leader of the opposition groups--spiritually, at least, though there are obscurantist fractures--is a man named Jack Dunavant, a civil engineer and a councilman in the town of Halifax, which is about 30 miles downstream from Coles Hill. Dunavant heads an organization called Southside Concerned Citizens, which formed to fight uranium mining three decades ago and has since taken up a number of other local environmental causes, such as regulation of the hog industry. “We had hoped that uranium mining had been put to death with the moratorium,” Dunavant told me. “But where there’s money involved, there’s always the greedy fingers that want to stir the pot again.”

Dunavant claims that Coles is only playing the benevolent country patrician. “You have to know Walter to appreciate that it’s baloney,” he says. “He is in it for the money--that’s all.” Dunavant thinks Coles is merely a front man for multinational mining interests and decries the fact that Virginia Uranium has hired a phalanx of lobbyists to press its case for lifting the moratorium. Like other mining opponents, he tends to cast the struggle in apocalyptic terms. “If Richmond tries to shove the uranium issue down our throats,” Dunavant vowed at a raucous meeting of a state legislative subcommittee last year, “we will fight until the bitter end, until the last man falls.”

It may not come to that. Dunavant has influential allies--though they’re rather more tempered--both in the legislature and among mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club. The question of whether to expand nuclear power splits environmentalists, but uranium mining is something most everyone in the movement agrees is problematic. In the past, exhausted pit mines were often left neglected, or used as swimming holes, and some are now EPA-designated Superfund sites. On a Navajo reservation that spans several Western states, homes have been found to be contaminated with radiation from mines that began operating in the 1940s.

The Piedmont Environmental Council, which has long opposed uranium mining in Virginia, says that the 1980s plan would have entailed blasting out a hole 110 acres in area and 850 feet deep. “That would have left an open pit there that would fill with water,” Coles admits. “Well, I didn’t like that back then and I don’t like it today.” Virginia Uranium has promised to set aside funds at the outset to eventually return the site of the mine to its original green and contoured condition.

But concerns about uranium mining are more about safety than aesthetics. Uranium occurs naturally in miniscule concentrations, and extracting it from a large body of ore involves a dusty milling process that leaves behind a sizeable quantity of waste rock, which is worthless but can still contain radionuclides such as radium and thorium. A 2007 EPA study concluded that the health effects associated with closed mines were a function of distance: People who worked in them or lived nearby, like the Navajos, might be at “quite high” risk; as one’s distance and frequency of exposure decreased, the dangers appeared to become insubstantial. Environmental advocates point out that such studies, which were all done out West, may understate the hazards for Virginia. “Even though we think of it as being a very rural area, it’s really densely populated compared to other places where uranium is mined,” says Kay Slaughter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. Rainfall levels are also considerably higher, with occasional hurricanes and floods. Mining opponents hypothesize that contamination could infiltrate the watershed that feeds Virginia Beach.

The Coles family responds with its own scientific evidence, suggesting that the public-health risks associated with uranium are negligible. The worst cases of contamination happened before tight regulation, they say, and, while mines do emit radiation, that’s all around us anyway. The material inside a household smoke detector is a thousand times more radioactive than a handful of uranium ore. Nonetheless, the company’s disposal plans call for sealing the leftover ground-up rock in capped underground cells, in keeping with federal standards, which call for enclosures built to last as long as 1,000 years. Of course, the very fact that the waste has to be sealed away for centuries is an indication that uranium’s dangers are not just a figment of critics’ imaginations.

So who is right--Coles or his opponents? At the very least, uranium mining is an environmentally disruptive and unprecedented proposition for Virginia, and much remains uncertain about its potential impacts. Coles realized that, without more data, he’d never be able to convince Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate to lift the moratorium that was still on the books. So he decided to start with an intermediate step, proposing a study to weigh the science and economics. Both he and mining opponents recognized, however, that this superficially innocuous tactic--who could oppose knowing more?--was really the first move in a determined campaign. “Many of the elected delegates are waiting for the study,” Coles told me, “to give them cover to take a position on this.” His enemies, suspecting a whitewash, mobilized against the inquiry: They knew that if they could deny Coles the right answers, they’d kill his plans.

When Coles first went to the legislature in 2008, the proposal for a uranium study met with cautious approval. The nuclear industry is important to Virginia, which is home to two commercial plants; Northrop Grumman and Areva, a French energy conglomerate, are currently building a $360 million facility to manufacture reactor components in Newport News. Moreover, the area around Coles Hill has been wracked in recent years by the shrinking demand for tobacco, downsizing at several industrial plants, and the closure of a textile mill. Coles says that, once his mine is up and running, it will employ several hundred people and generate taxable revenues of $300 million a year. Democrat Tim Kaine, the governor in 2008, embraced the study proposal, and many Republican legislators were equally supportive. It didn’t hurt that Virginia Uranium had a lot of friends in Richmond, ties that were notable even by the intertwined standards of the state capitol. One of the company’s investors had a son who was a GOP state senator representing Pittsylvania County. Walter Coles’s brother-in-law, Whitt Clement, a former state cabinet secretary, was lobbying for the company, along with a number of Richmond’s top power brokers.

Nonetheless, on its first try, the proposal died in the House of Delegates. “It was just a rubber stamp for mining,” says Watkins Abbitt, an independent and one of two members whose opposition, due to worries about environmental risks, stopped the bill in the Rules Committee. But Coles kept pushing, and he managed to get another governmental body, the Coal and Energy Commission, to take up a proposal to outsource the study to the unquestionably independent National Academy of Sciences, which would appoint a committee of experts to assess costs, benefits, and dangers. After many months of hearings and debate, the commission approved the study. Under an agreement signed late last month, Virginia Uranium will provide $1.7 million in financing for the report but will exercise no influence over the makeup of the committee or its findings.

“The focus is increasingly favorable to us,” Coles recently told me. It was a few days after President Obama’s State of the Union address, and Coles finally felt that some momentum was building behind America’s long-promised--but never realized--“nuclear renaissance.” In his speech, Obama had talked about “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants,” winning a rare round of applause from Republicans, and he’d followed up a few days later with a proposal for $54 billion in loan guarantees. From a local perspective, Coles was even more encouraged by the GOP response to the State of the Union, delivered by Virginia’s new governor Bob McDonnell, who talked about the need to “unleash” nuclear power.

On the other hand, Coles knew as well as anyone that the problems that had long beleaguered the nuclear industry hadn’t disappeared. Nuclear dread was persistent and not always unjustified: In Vermont, the state legislature recently voted to close down an aging plant after repeated malfunctions. Building reactors still required prohibitive amounts of capital--that first proposed plant in Georgia was budgeted to cost $14 billion. And Obama’s nuclear proposals faced the usual politically daunting prospects. New plants were supposed to be a trade-off to entice Senate Republicans to vote for legislation to control carbon emissions, but the chances of that happening in a midterm election year appeared slim. And then, there was McDonnell, who had campaigned on a promise to turn southern Virginia into “America’s energy corridor” and acted positively giddy about the prospect of drilling for oil and natural gas off Virginia’s shores, but who was taking a noncommittal stance when it came to mining uranium. The company’s allies in Richmond were sending signals that the governor would be with them when it counted, but McDonnell was publicly reserving judgment until he saw the National Academy of Sciences report. Unfortunately, it wasn’t due to be completed until late 2011, which meant a lot more waiting.


Over the past two years, Coles’s company, held in limbo by the legislative process, has struggled mightily. The 2007 uranium bubble, like so many others, popped in 2008. In the face of a collapsing market, Virginia Uranium’s IPO was scrapped. The price of uranium now appears to have stabilized around $40 per pound--about one-third of what it was at its peak.

Walter Coles Jr., who goes by Walt, handles the financial side of Virginia Uranium. A voluble, red-haired 37-year-old, he spends a lot of time in New York, and, not long ago, we met at a bar in Greenwich Village. Over the summer, Virginia Uranium had merged with a small, publicly traded Canadian mining firm, a move that allowed the company to sell stock, though the Coles family retained majority control. Walt said he hoped that going public would help the company raise enough funds to stay in existence until the legislature acted. He was frustrated by the delays and with what he considered to be the know-nothing attitudes of mining opponents. “An engineer said to me that you can get more radiation from eating a banana than from standing next to a truckload of one percent uranium ore,” Walt said. He’s hoping the forthcoming study will defuse the fear. If the experts give a vote of confidence, and the legislature lifts the moratorium, Walt and his father calculate that it will take them another five years to get the mine up and running. If the experts say no--well, it’s probably back to farming.

So the fate of Coles Hill now rests in the hands of science. If you want to get figurative, you could say that it resides inside an anonymous sheet-metal shed on a low point of the Coles family property. Inside, on shelves that reach the roof, are long cardboard boxes filled with cylindrical pieces of rocks. They’re core samples drilled 30 years ago by Marline (they now belong to the Virginia Museum of Natural History), plus some collected recently by Coles--more than 65,000 feet in all. For the last few years, the samples have been tested not only by Coles’s company, which wants more information about their composition for mining purposes, but also by geologists, who want to understand what Coles Hill tells us about the Triassic Basins. Their work is likely to form a starting point for the National Academy of Sciences study. And one day, perhaps, it may draw a map to treasures buried beneath other backyards.

Andrew Rice is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.