MAC: Mines and Communities

In the wake of Fukushima, what future for Canadian uranium?

Published by MAC on 2011-04-12

The fall-out (both radioactive and political) from last month's Fukushima nuclear plant disaster continues to be felt around the world as well as in Japan.

One of the three countries which supply uranium to Japan is Canada, whose Cameco Corporation is the world's biggest "yellowcake" provider.

Indeed Tepco - the utility responsible for operating the failed Fukushima plant -  has itself partnered with Cameco in "developing" Canada's huge Cigar Lake uranium mine. 

Some states - such as Germany and China- have recently announced they will put restraints on their planned nuclear programmes.

Nonetheless Canada is  pushing ahead regardless in promoting further exploitation of the core nuclear fuel. 

As reported by Jamie Kneen (MAC Editor and staffer with MiningWatch Canada) the prospect of a new uranium mine in the Indigenous territory of Nunavut seems to have divided public opinion.

Many citizens are bewildered at the absence of vital information on the consequences of uranium mining being provided them by the authorities.

Baker Lake struggles under pressure to allow uranium mining

By Jamie Kneen

7 April 2011

Baker Lake, Nunavut, is the geographic centre of Canada, but it's rarely the centre of attention for most Canadians.

And yet what's going on here is nothing less than a test of democracy in Canada's newest territory. A huge complex of uranium mines is being proposed for the tundra west of Baker Lake, in the middle of important caribou habitat.

The community faces a stark choice: allow the mine to proceed in return for jobs, business opportunities, and royalties -- or protect the long-term well-being of the wildlife, the ecosystem, and the community.

The choice is made more stark by the fact that relatively little has been done to create other economic opportunities for one of the country's poorest communities. It's also made more complicated by the fact that there are other mines being proposed for other metals, and one, the Meadowbank gold mine, is already in operation.

It's early spring, and the warming air carries the scent of the sewage truck as it makes its morning rounds. The roads are busy with snowmobiles, ATVs, and vehicles.

Thanks to the Meadowbank mine there are a lot of new snowmobiles and trucks and even a Hummer -- I'm told there are actually three in town, though there's only a few kilometres of road.

The Meadowbank mine provided a lot of work over the past couple of years, though that's tapering off ,now that the construction phase is over and the mine needs skills and education levels that local Inuit can't offer.

Uranium voted out

The uranium controversy goes back decades.

It was uranium exploration, and its impacts on the live-giving caribou herds, that helped start the whole land claims process for Inuit in what eventually became Nunavut.

In Baker Lake, a proposed uranium mine called "Kiggavik" became the centre of controversy in the late 1980s and it was withdrawn from the environmental assessment process in 1990 after the community voted 90 per cent against uranium mining.

In the evening, elders and community members gathered in the Qamanituaq Recreation Centre recall this history. Many of them still feel the same way.

But since Areva, the French government's nuclear power arm, bought the Kiggavik property and set up an office here to anchor a massive public relations effort, more people have come to see the project as inevitable, its offer of jobs and prosperity as more compelling, and the regulatory system as competent and capable of protecting the land, water, and wildlife.

People have gathered to participate in a public forum convened by the Government of Nunavut (GN) as part of a review of the Territory's uranium policy. The policy review was announced in response to pressure from Nunavut's only non-governmental environmental organization, Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit -- Makita for short -- for a public inquiry into the issue.

Instead, there will be three of these public forums, and people can call or send in their thoughts directly as well. The GN has set up a web site for this purpose and has commissioned a background paper from industry consultants Golder Associates to help inform people's thinking.

Unfortunately, and perhaps not unexpectedly, the background document is less than forceful -- and less than honest -- in presenting the dangers of ionizing radiation and the environmental and socio-economic impacts of uranium mining.

For, against - and undecided

The hall is quite full; about 150 people have come out to listen to brief presentations from a panel of experts -- all pro-uranium except for the two Makita reps -- and ask questions or make comments.

The interventions cover everything from the effect of the Meadowbank mine road on the caribou to mining royalties to job training. People talk about how the elders who were most attached to the land and the traditional way of life and had been the staunchest opponents of the Kiggavik proposal 21 years ago are dead now, and how people need jobs more than ever.

Others talk about how crucial the lands and waters are to their well-being; the places themselves are important, where their family members are buried, but so are the animals and fish that people need for food and skins for clothing. "People are worth more than things, more than money," as one woman put it. "Why are you not investing in other development?"

Some people clearly have strong positions for or against, while others are much more undecided.

The one thing there seems to be consensus on is that they have not had access to independent information: all the information they have gotten has been through the mining companies, and they would like to be better informed.

At the same time, the voice of the younger people doesn't seem to be heard, even though much of the support for uranium mining is couched in concern for their future. Most of the people at the forum are middle-aged or older. It's humbling to be in the same room as so many people who have such a depth of experience. But at the same time, as one of the few youth who spoke said, "You need to go to the youth if you want to hear from them."

A lot of the discussion focuses on the Kiggavik proposal, now comprising a handful of open-pit and underground mines, a mill, waste rock disposal sites, as well as power, road, and port facilities.

The project is currently in the early stages of an environmental review by the Nunavut Impact Review Board or NIRB. Without any documents available in Inuktitut it is impossible for the elders and hunters who have the most to say about the project's impact to participate in more than a peripheral way.

Last week, when the NIRB held a workshop in Baker Lake, 25 of the 26 people participating at the table were Qallunat, or non-Inuit. The Inuit sat on the side, listening to the Inuktitut interpretation. One participant commented that it was just like the old days, as if the Nunavut land claim and the new territory had never happened.


There have already been a lot of objections to the way the NIRB review is being carried out.

Not only is the material not being made available in Inuktitut, but only a small portion of the funding requested by intervenors was actually allocated by the federal government, and sufficient time has not been allowed for intervenors to do their work.

The cumulative impacts of past and future activity in the area will not be fully addressed, as the scope of the review is limited to projects that have already been identified.

This is especially problematic since the Kiggavik project's infrastructure would create a base for perhaps dozens of other mines in the area, effectively opening the entire lower Thelon River basin to development.

Perhaps even more importantly, the NIRB has refused to evaluate the ability and capacity of the various regulatory and monitoring agencies to deal with a project of this magnitude and complexity, when it is clear that all of them, whether territorial or federal, are facing severe challenges.

Both the NIRB review of the proposed project and the GN policy review hinge in large part on the attitude of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, or NTI.

Conflicting policies

NTI represents the Inuit of Nunavut and actually owns much of the Kiggavik deposits and many others, through the regional Inuit associations.

Until NTI created a policy to allow uranium mining (with some fine-sounding conditions attached), no uranium exploration or mining would have been allowed under the terms of the regional land use plan. The regional land use plan was amended in 2007 in a secretive and heavily criticised process to allow uranium mining to proceed.

Confronted by the contradictions of allowing the Kiggavik project to go ahead, and possibly dozens of other such projects in the same area, NTI is now reviewing its own policy. The NTI board of directors has not yet announced what form this will take.

The Inuit gathered in the recreation centre aren't really concerned with the interaction of these three simultaneous processes.

They would like to get better answers than they can get in one evening, especially when there are no public health or wildlife specialists on the panel, and the radiation and environmental specialists are industry consultants. A local (pro-uranium) politician says, "I just want the relevant facts for the people."

Who is listening?

A recurrent complaint is that, for all the meetings and presentations and workshops and open houses they attend, people have no idea if anyone is actually listening to them.

Policies and projects are developed somewhere else, and there is no obvious reflection of people's ideas and criticisms. Perhaps through the efforts of Makita and some conscientious Inuit and Territorial leaders this can change.

Perhaps the people of Nunavut, Inuit and Qallunat alike, will be allowed to look at the unvarnished reality of uranium mining and the global nuclear machine.

Japan's reactor disaster raises Nunavut nuclear fears over uranium mine

By Bob Weber

The Canadian Press

3 April 2011

The hall in the tiny Nunavut community of Baker Lake was packed last Thursday and the debate lasted all night and into the morning.

The crowd of about 150 people - nearly 10 per cent of hamlet's entire population - didn't stop talking until 1:30 a.m.

They were talking about uranium, a familiar subject in the community where French nuclear giant Areva has proposed a $1.5-billion mine for the radioactive metal.

But this forum, one of several organized by the territorial government, was different than so many previous community meetings on the topic. About halfway through, an elderly Inuit man stood and asked the question that underlined why.

"His question was, if it's so safe, why are people in Japan asked to leave their homes and not to come back?" recalled Sandra Inutiq, a member of a Nunavut anti-nuclear group. "If it's so safe, why are people in Japan so scared?"

Nunavummiut have been asking whether they want uranium mining on their land for years.

Last fall, six Nunavut communities asked the legislature to call a public inquiry on the issue. Thursday's forum - the second of three being held throughout the territory - was Premier Eva Aariak's compromise. Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, Nunavut's land claim organization, is also reviewing its conditional support for uranium mining.

Now, the unfolding disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant has added a new note of urgency to that debate.

"Everybody's talking about what's going on in Japan," said Inutiq, of the Iqaluit-based group Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit. "You can't help but think about it."

Aariak has also sensed rising concern, as news reports from Japan filter through the territory.

"I think that through media there is more attention given to what is happening in Japan," she said.

"Perhaps because of the fact that they have witnesses through the media as to what can happen if there is a disaster, they will have more questions. Nunavut is certainly concerned about what has happened in Japan."

One of the goals of the forums is to gauge the depth of that concern, she said.

Terry Audla of NTI acknowledged that the Japanese situation has arisen in discussions about uranium mining.

"There have been one or two mentioning (Japan) as part of the preamble to their questions," he said.

But he said it's mostly Makitagunarningit that has been making the link. He said NTI treats uranium the same as any other resource -development is OK is it's safe, environmentally responsible and of benefit to Inuit.

"NTI is pretty much neutral on uranium," he said.

Nunavummiut understand the difference between a nuclear reactor and a uranium mine, said Areva's Alun Richards. He said Areva is committed to education.

"We support whatever level of discussion Nunavut people want. We know this takes a lot of discussion - particularly in Nunavut, where there's a tradition of people working co-operatively."

Areva's proposed Kiggavik mine is now in Nunavut's regulatory system. An environmental impact assessment is being prepared.

By most accounts, the debate last Thursday in Baker Lake was about evenly split between those who favour the mine and those who fear it. That's roughly the same division displayed in letters about the project sent last year to Nunavut's environmental review board. It suggests Japan's disaster may not have changed public opinion in the territory very much.

But if nothing else, the nuclear disaster half a world away has encouraged Nunavummiut to speak up about their concerns, Inutiq said.

"In terms of people speaking out publicly, there's a lot more than there was a year and a half ago," Inutiq said.

"It's now part of the discussion. It's out and the more people speak out, the more people feel free to speak out."

How is Saskatchewan Involved with Japan's Nuclear Disaster?

By Jim Harding

R-Town News

31 March 2011

The Saskatchewan Connection

The Fukushima's nuclear reactors which are steadily contaminating Japan's atmosphere, seashore, watersheds, food chains and making millions of Japanese into nuclear refugees are owned and operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. or Tepco. Tepco has Saskatchewan connections.

The Globe and Mail describes Tepco as "one of (Cameco's) largest customers for uranium used to fuel nuclear power plants", and there is little doubt that much of the radioactive contamination threatening Japan comes from uranium fuel mined in northern Saskatchewan.

And Tepco is directly involved in this mining; since the 1990s it has been Cameco's partner in the massive Cigar Lake mine, which has itself had serious "accidents" and is years behind its production schedule due to recurring underground flooding.

Cameco has taken a big hit since the nuclear disaster started at Tepco's plants; its share value has dropped 20% and the demand for uranium could markedly fall as more countries become wary of nuclear power. Still, Cameco's CEO Jerry Grandey isn't sounding bitter, though he admitted to the Globe and Mail that Japan is "not living up to our standards of

Grandey himself may not want "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" to come out; he flippantly states that "in the long term all of this will demonstrate the strength of the industry", a cavalier attitude in the face of such devastation.

Sketchy Face-Saving

While there have been periods of media blackout about the Fukushima reactors and the industry continues to try to normalize the disaster, things continue to spin more out of control since the disaster started three weeks ago. The New York Times is now reporting the disaster as "the worst atomic crisis in 25 years", second only to Chernobyl in 1986, but information coming out of Japan remains sketchy.

The 19 million people residing in Tokyo are told not to worry, even though the Fukushima reactors at risk of melt-down are only 150 miles away, the distance from Regina's Legislative Buildings to Premier Brad Walls' Swift Current riding. Meanwhile radioactive particles from Japan are being "found as far away as Iceland" and over Newfoundland.

And though Tokyo residents are being told to "sit tight", at one point mothers were told to not give their infants tap water. There was an immediate run on bottled water which some are also using for cooking.

The nuclear disaster was initially correctly reported as a global nuclear disaster. Then its profile receded, and enforcing the "no fly zone" over Libya gained the camera's attention.

But every day or two something more slips out. Tepco and government authorities try in vain to normalize the disaster, as though things are coming under control, but this has more to do with Japanese face-saving than scientific honesty. In a recent CBC radio interview the Japanese ambassador to Canada refused to respond to any questions about radioactivity and risk.

When it was pointed out that the evacuation zone for Japanese was only 25 KM whereas the US had already pulled its nationals back 80 KM from Fukushima, he simply responded that America is a democracy and has a right to do as it decides.

Tepco officials are clearly scrambling to avert a full melt down.

Ten days after the first hydrogen explosions that destroyed the containment buildings the company still hadn't hooked electricity back up to their six reactors. (Meanwhile it was reported that an offshore wind farm survived the earthquake and continued to produce electricity after the tsunami.)

With no power to pump water to cool the core (or the overheating spent fuel bundles stored outside reactor # 4), Tepco officials have regularly vented radioactive gases into the air to avert a core explosion and possible meltdown.

Tepco brought in helicopters which desperately dropped sea water onto the reactors, often missing the targets altogether. Then fire trucks were brought in to spray seawater onto the reactors, in what seemed another futile though symbolically heroic gesture.

Contamination Spreading

And then, not surprisingly, the other shoe fell and it was reported that milk had 27 times the acceptable radioactivity and that vegetables had 17 times the allowable. And then, as if it wasn't expected, that the sea water offshore from the reactors had radioactivity more than 1,000 times the normal. This continues to rise; it's now up to 1,800 times.

A full two weeks into the disaster Japan's Prime Minister admitted that the situation was still "grave and serious" and that we "can't be optimistic".

But even this was a face-saving understatement, as the water coming from reactor # 3 was soon to be 10,000 times as radioactive as permissible. The fuel in this reactor was what's called MOX fuel, which is a mixture of plutonium and uranium.

Then we heard that another 10,000 people were being relocated as the evacuation zone was enlarged by 10 KM. The next day a government spokesman said things were still "very unpredictable" as they'd found that water from reactor # 1 was also 10,000 times more radioactive than allowable.

Nearly three weeks into the disaster Tepco clearly isn't able to control what's happening at their crippled reactors. Even more radioactivity is getting outside reactor # 2 and it is near certain its containment has been breached. Workers are reported fumbling around in the dark trying to hook up electrical cables while standing in highly radioactive water, with only plastic bags tied around their shoes; such is nuclear energy in the trenches.

In late March Tepco officials apologized for erroneously reporting that water leaking from reactor # 2 was 10,000,000 times the norm. It turned out the more correct figure was 100,000 times the radioactivity, which remains a seriously dangerous level. The Washington Post just reported that this amounts to 1,000 millisieverts (mSv) per hour, an exposure that would give a worker a yearly dose in just 15 minutes, and will most certainly be life-threatening to Tepco workers.

All of the radioactive elements being spewed into the environment present health hazards to present and future generations. It is interesting that most reporting has been on the fairly short-lived Iodine 131. But what of radioactive Caesium 137, which will contaminate farmland for 400 years; or the more long-lived carcinogens that are most certainly being released, including Plutonium 239, which is toxic for 500,000 years? Plutonium is now contaminating the land around Tepco's reactors.

Back to Saskatchewan

Ignorance, confusion and misinformation aren't a sound way to deal with a catastrophic nuclear accident. When you see the twisted buildings left from earlier explosions and realize that there are no control rooms operating to reliably monitor what's actually happening in the reactors, you get more compassionate for those making the face-saving statements and those sacrificing their health. Trauma as well as radioactivity will take its toll on the Japanese.

Prior to this accident Japan was considering expanding its nuclear power "arsenal" so that its nuclear-generated electricity would go from today's 30% to 50% of the total by 2030. This won't happen after Fukushima, and Cameco won't be able to count on an enlarged uranium market from this contaminated country. Japan already has 55 nuclear plants squeezed onto its small, earthquake prone island and there's no safe place to put its nuclear wastes.

And this brings us back to Saskatchewan, which is being targeted for a nuclear waste dump. Cameco is on record as supporting taking nuclear wastes back from countries that buy its uranium. Like Japan!

When Saskatchewan's Cigar Lake mine flooded, co-owner Tepco provided pumping technology to help Cameco deal with the problem. Well, their pumps have clearly now faced their Alamo.

And what might Cameco now do to help its corporate partner Tepco? What might be Cameco's quid-pro-quo? What about investing in renewable energy and leaving the toxic uranium in the ground?

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