Atomic number: on the radio and in my life

When I was a young radio news director with a freshly made bachelors degree, I worked for an AM radio station in Danville, VA, covering local, regional, and state news, and doing some national stories for NBC, our network. The station was WVOV, the “Voice of Virginia,” which took over the 970 spot from the long-running WYPR in Danville. One of the big news stories of the day was a proposal to mine and mill uranium.

The uranium was found in rich deposits near Chatham, VA, just north of Danville, about seven miles off U.S. 29. Marline Uranium, Inc. wanted to get the ore out of the ground and process it into yellow cake for use in producing fuel for nuclear power plants.

Many people were worried about potential environmental downsides, while uranium proponents talked about the economic boon this would be for the area. The Virginia General Assembly effectively placed a moratorium on the mining and milling of uranium in 1982. (It’s  more complicated than that, as mining advocates are quick to point out, but the General Assembly’s action indeed had that effect).

After my radio days, I got my masters degree in communication (emphasis on radio/TV/film) from University of North Carolina-Greensboro and taught English, journalism, broadcasting, and communication for Averett University while continuing to write and do radio and community television on the side. Then I had kids, and Rick and I went into follow-his-career mode, since I decided I wanted to focus on being an at-home mom. And follow his career we did — from Danville, VA to Mooresville, NC, Charlottesville, VA, Stanardsville, VA, Hernando, Mississippi, and then back to South Hill, VA.

During the long interim between kid #2 and kid #3, I had my own communication and PR biz that covered a broad gamut – from editing a lake and boating magazine to being on the editorial board for a lactation journal. During that time, I worked for the School Board, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Town at the same time–there wasn’t much going on in Mooresville, NC I didn’t know about, officially and unofficially. I’ve also communed with some amazing poets over the years, especially in Davidson, NC and Vicksburg, Mississippi. (However, I found being a Faulconer in the Land of Faulkner is not necessarily an advantage). Somewhere in there, La Leche League became a major factor in my life, supporting me in nursing my babies, and that’s where I learned the rewards of doing professional level volunteer work, helping moms, leading leaders and organizing conferences, all with the hopes of helping moms and babies connect. This led to my own commitment to home education and later, volunteering and working in ways I hope and believe will help people who choose to homeschool their children.

Anyway, I’m now in South Hill, Virginia–about 90 miles from Danville–and still multi-tasking. And one of my tasks is doing some news from Southside Virginia for WCVE radio in Richmond, which has a repeater tower (WMVE) in Chase City. It’s an NPR-member station. People’s heads explode when they try to put together their stereotypical impressions of homeschoolers with their stereotypical impressions of public radio journalists. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people say, “You’re not that Jeanne Faulconer. Are you?”

Guilty as charged. I homeschooled my older kids to college and am still in the thick of it with my 13 year old. And I also do news for an NPR-member station. And a bunch of other stuff–editing a couple magazines (Home Education Magazine and VaHomeschoolers Voice) and once again, teaching college classes (Southside Virginia Community College).

But here’s the thing. During the intervening years that I’ve been skipping around the country editing and nursing babies and writing and homeschooling boys and giving speeches and coaching youth soccer–the uranium has stayed in the ground.

So I’ve made it back to Southside Virginia and back to radio. And what has come around again? Uranium mining. Marline Uranium is no longer in business, but a new company, Virginia Uranium, Inc., hopes the Virginia General Assembly will lift the moratorium and allow it to mine and mill the ore. As you can imagine, there are still people and groups who oppose it and people and groups who support it.

So some three decades after I first encountered the issue of uranium mining in Virginia, it’s back. Book-ended by Three Mile Island and a tsunami in Japan, nuclear power experienced a bit of a renaissance, with its new reputation as greener than fossil fuels. I don’t know how it will turn out this time, but it’s once again my job to try to explain it on the radio.

For my most recent story, I interviewed a representative from Virginia Uranium, the prospective mining and milling company, and from the Roanoke River Basin Association, one of many organizations with concerns about the impact on the environment. The Roanoke River Basin Association’s geographic area includes Kerr Lake, also known as Buggs Island Lake, where my own town and several neighboring towns get water. Lake Gaston, one lake down in the chain, supplies water for Virginia Beach, which is also concerned about whether radioactivity and other contaminants in mine tailings might be able to get into the water supply. Virginia Uranium says the concerns aren’t valid and that the site can be designed without risking the water supply.

Pittsylvania County and Danville have suffered from the exodus of factory jobs, including the loss of Dan River, Inc., the textile company where Rick first worked as a management trainee. He still remembers it was 586 steps through the tunnel that crossed the Dan River (really a covered bridge, but always called a tunnel) connecting the Long Mill to the White Mill, but the beautiful turn-of-the-century mill has been dismantled, brick by beautiful brick, beam by beautiful beam. I still remember his frustration over the never-solved problem of having “tunnel boxes” where they needed to be in order to efficiently transport yarn from the mill on the north river bank to the mill on the south river bank. How many conversations did we have about that? They were important conversations, attempts to find solutions, challenges to solve problems–about a problem in a textile mill that no longer exists.

Would $8 billion worth of uranium and the 350 jobs it could bring help offset the economic troubles of southern Virginia? Or is Virginia ill-equipped to regulate such an operation, potentially creating negative health and image impacts? Or is this the fallacy of false choice?

I’ve outlined the basics of the uranium mining issue in my first story on the topic for WCVE, with an emphasis on concerns about water quality. The story ran last week, but you can still listen at the Ideastations archive.

If you live in southern Virginia, Virginia Beach (and some of the military installations in Tidewater in general), or the part of North Carolina that gets its drinking water from the Roanoke River Basin, you’ve got a direct interest in exploring whether water quality could be affected. If you live in Pittsylvania County, you could benefit from any positive economic impact that develops. If you’re anywhere else in Virginia, you will be affected if state agencies are receiving revenue from or are charged with providing oversight of uranium mining and milling. Your state legislators will likely be asked to vote on this issue, possibly as soon as this winter.

I can’t tell you what to think about this issue, but I can sure say you ought to be thinking about it. There are rabbit trails of links to follow. In my usual habit of making connections between all the things I do, I see a fantastic opportunity for a unit study for homeschoolers–the fissionable uranium atom, how nuclear energy works, nuclear power in Virginia, the United States, and around the world, nuclear energy’s potential in diversifying energy resources, how the state legislature and lobbyists work, the role of local, state, and federal regulation and the effectiveness of regulators, the impact of high unemployment, the impact of globalization on the textile industry, the mechanical and chemical processes used in liberating uranium from granite, and the tension between benefiting from a property’s resources and contemplating worst-case scenarios that could impact neighboring properties.

For starters.

Which may explain, why, in my life, there is some synergy in being a homeschool mom and doing public radio news. Really, we’re talking about research, analysis, and writing being important to both.

I certainly never would have guessed I’d ever be homeschooling when the Marline Uranium guy brought a hunk of granite and a Geiger counter into my radio studio thirty years ago. And during the intervening years of mothering, homeschooling, and all kinds of writing, editing, reporting, speaking, event planning, counseling, and college teaching, I certainly never would have guessed I’d ever again be covering proposals to mine uranium in Virginia.

If uranium mining gets under way, it will take the next thirty years to mine completely out. Or if uranium prices fall or the legislature extends the moratorium for as long as it has already tabled the issue, it could be another thirty years before uranium mining is considered again.

I’d like to make a radioactivity-related joke about this amounting to a half-life for me, but I guess I’d hope it could be more like a third-life. I now do the majority of my radio production using a digital recorder and a laptop computer, and I send MP3s of my stories to the station as email attachments; during my early days in radio it took a whole wall of equipment to accomplish the same thing, using cranky Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorders mounted on the wall of a radio production studio. I can only imagine the technology that could communicate the status of uranium mining thirty years from now.

Once I wanted to write and teach and have a horse farm. In some wild blessing of work and the timely absolute auction of an old tobacco farm, this happened by the time I was twenty-four–I worked horses and I had the college teaching job I loved, along with responsibility for a nice chunk of the college’s PR. What I didn’t know then was that three children were a few years in front of me, that I’d go from being a career woman to an at-home mom to a work-from-homer. I didn’t know I’d then go from doing communication work for a school division to becoming an advocate for home education. I didn’t know any of the friends I’d meet or opportunities I’d have as Rick did amazing work running production operations around the Southeast. I didn’t know I’d go from teaching riding to coaching soccer (let’s be clear: kids’ rec soccer). I didn’t know I’d go from covering uranium mining for radio news to . . . covering uranium mining for radio news.

My next thirty years? My only guess is that in some form or another, I’ll still be mining words and milling family life.

This entry was posted in A Writer's Life, Homeschooling, Radio, South Hill, VA, Southside Virginia, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Atomic number: on the radio and in my life

  1. Margo says:

    Jeanne, I never take time to read all the amazing stuff people post on FB, or I never actually have the time. This time I am glad I did read yours. It’s the first of your blogs that I have read, and it’s a great piece.

  2. Oh Margo, how wonderful to hear you here. You are one of the amazing people I was blessed to meet and love on this fortuitous journey from uranium mining to uranium mining. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Pingback: Interview about Homeschooling | At Each Turn

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