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Sunday, March 10, 2013
With the nation’s largest known undeveloped uranium deposit 100 miles from campus, it’s hard to blame Virginia Tech professors interested in energy research for beating a path to Pittsylvania County, home to an estimated 119 million pounds of the radioactive ore.
But Tech officials have opened themselves up to criticism by failing to fully explain the university’s complex relationship, particularly its financial connections, with Virginia Uranium Inc., the company seeking permission to mine the site.
The General Assembly preserved a mining moratorium this winter, and Gov. Bob McDonnell has been mum about requests that he develop regulations over legislators’ objections. But Virginia Uranium hasn’t given up. Its ties to Tech are key to its efforts to gain public and political support.
Tech’s most visible role in the debate was as facilitator for a National Academy of Sciences study examining the environmental and public health effects of mining in the state. Virginia Uranium paid $1.7 million for the research, but the NAS required the money to be handled by Tech to avoid conflicts. Tech retained $300,000 for its work on the study.
Less known is that Virginia Uranium has funded multiple research projects overseen by Tech professors. In total, the university has directly received just more than $1.25 million from the company in the past five years, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information request. The money paid for groundwater studies, soil evaluations, surveys of insects and stream life and research on the potential impact of a radioactive waste spill in a major flood.
Michael Karmis, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Tech and the point man for the NAS study, said those dollars don’t mean that the university is an advocate for uranium mining.
“One has to separate between personal opinions and Virginia Tech opinions,” he said in an interview last week. “Tech has never officially had an opinion. Here you will find folks in favor and you find folks against.”
Cale Jaffe, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and an opponent of the proposed Virginia mine, said he doesn’t view Tech as an advocate, and he praised Karmis’ even-handed oversight of the NAS study. But he said there is less transparency about the role of other professors.
The most outspoken academic on uranium mining has been Robert Bodnar, a distinguished professor of geosciences who specializes in energy and minerals research. Projects he oversees have attracted nearly $740,000 in Virginia Uranium funding. The resulting theses and dissertations identify funding sources, but Bodnar has been less conscientious about explaining his connection to the company as he became more involved in the political debate over the proposed mine.
“I consider myself to be an advocate for development of energy policies in this country that will help us become more self-sufficient and help to wean us away from fossil fuels,” he told me in a phone interview. “ . . . I saw so many people out there who were spreading lies and untruths, I can’t let that pass by.”
Bodnar approached Virginia Uranium when he learned about its plans. “I said, ‘This is a great opportunity for our students,’ ” who previously traveled to Nevada, Arizona, Mexico and Peru to do mining research.
“To have a project with a real-world goal was unique and appealing,” said John Gannon, a former student of Bodnar’s who conducted a groundwater study near the mine site.
It’s common for universities to seek private sector support for research along with grants from government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tech officials said there are safeguards in place to ensure industries don’t influence the research. An advisory committee oversees those arrangements. Research published in scientific journals is reviewed by anonymous experts selected by the publication. “The sponsor has no censorship over the results,” Bodnar said. “They provide the funding but they don’t meddle in the day-to-day research.”
It’s likely that Tech’s ties to Virginia Uranium could strengthen. The university is considering offering a full degree in nuclear engineering. Bodnar said he’s been assured by the mining company that it will continue to support his research.
“They plan to continue to move ahead with promoting their educational program,” he said.
Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.
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