What's Next for Canada's Uranium Mining Business?

Our federal government is about to give all Canadians the chance to fuel the arms race, damage the fragile northern ecosystem, and bequeath a degraded gene pool to our descendants. And in the bargain, we commit an unknown number of miners to an early death by cancer. Quite a deal, eh?

By John Willis

All this comes with one single industrial development: the expansion of the already bloated uranium industry in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. Despite a glut in the world market, three new uranium developments are underway. Two of them, Cigar Lake and Midwest Lake, are of an extremely high grade which will pose astounding environmental and occupational health problems. The third, near Baker Lake in the NWT, is in the arctic, which will multiply the ecological impact.

Canada has the largest uranium industry in the world, supplying 20 percent of the Western world's known demand each year. (Officially, the military has no demand and there are no military uranium mines). Since the historic high price of over $40 U.S. per pound in the 1970s, caused by a price-fixing cartel, the market price for uranium has fallen to less than $11 U.S. At these prices, every nuclear utility in the industrialized world is buying up uranium - not for reactors, but to set up a "secondary" market in which they become the supplier. This has created a glut of uranium while fuelling mine development. The new expansion results from this artificial demand, with absolutely no reference to energy needs.

What you and I get in our end of the deal, if the three new mines go ahead, is a huge increase in the already substantial radioactive contamination of the north. In Saskatchewan, levels of radiotoxic chemicals from uranium mining in fish, lichen, blueberries, moose, caribou, and humans double almost every two years.

A uranium mine operates for 10-20 years, releasing radioactive gas and liquid every day of every year. But the problems really only begin with the shutdown of the mine: for 80,000 years, the waste from mining gives off radon gas and liquid effluent containing radiotoxic and toxic metals which accumulate in the local biota and in the food chain. The astonishing volume of these wastes, called "tailings," preclude containment so they are normally dumped into lakes or hollows. And a recent study showed that uranium tailings actually become more hazardous as time passes, as more radium is created from the nuclear decay of thorium.

Ore 1000 Times Richer

At present, Canada has enough hazardous radioactive tailings to cover the Trans-Canada Highway more than two metres deep, all the way from Vancouver to Halifax. Uranium tailings are the most environmentally-damaging wastes produced in the entire nuclear fuel chain. And the uranium sector gives by far the highest doses to workers in the nuclear industry. The new mines in northern Canada will produce millions of tonnes of tailings a year.

At Cigar Lake, where the deeply-buried ore is as much as 1000 times richer than the existing operations at Elliot Lake, occupational radiation exposures will be unprecedented. Add to this recent international evidence that the risk of cancer from exposure to ionizing radiation is up to ten times higher than previously thought, and Canada has a recipe for a government-sanctioned decimation of uranium miners.

The United Steelworkers of America, the union representing Canada's uranium miners, is so concerned that it has called for a federal inquiry before any development gets underway.

Canada is the most reactionary government in the western world with regard to "allowable" radiation doses. Despite a mountain of unimpeachable evidence to the contrary, the Canadian government continues to insist that our archaic standard (50 milliSieverts/ year for workers, one-tenth of this for the public) poses an "acceptable" risk from radiation. France and the U.K., as two examples, have standards much lower than ours. British dose-limits are less than one-third of Canada's for workers and one-tenth of Canada's for the public. The head of Britain's National Radiological Protection Board has called for lowering the dose-limits even further. Why is Canada so recalcitrant? Think about those rich ore bodies.

In some regions of Canada, any activity that brings cash and jobs to the locale is considered a good thing, whatever the opportunity costs. (The jobs at the existing Key Lake mine, for example, cost $1 million apiece to create.) But eventually, the damaged ecosystem will far outweigh the short-term pleasure of a few cash-paying jobs.

But is any contribution to the military infrastructure defensible on the basis of economic spin-offs? An estimated five of every six pounds of uranium shipped to nuclear weapons states ends up in military hands; uranium marked "peaceful uses only" is routinely processed with military nuclear material. Canadian uranium frees up a stockpile trade between the allied nuclear states.

If all uranium in the world were monitored by the original owners to detect military use, our "peaceful uses only" label might mean something. Instead, its significance extends as far as any moral platitude: to the ends of our noses. As it stands, the civilian nuclear trade is just a veil for the production of nuclear weapons. No weapons state is upset about our "peaceful use" policy. The flow of new uranium, civilian or otherwise, is all they want. And we're giving it to them.

Nuclear technology symbolizes all that is horrifying in our world. It is unsustainable, economically backward, dangerous to ourselves and our children, and destructive of the emerging culture of "stepping lightly on the earth." Nuclear power is technology searching for a reason to be. Uranium mining is a resource-extraction industry welded to the old-boys network of External Affairs and to the terrorism of nuclear confrontation. It gives as excuses: "Just a little pollution, a little accident, a little bomb, a little break in the DNA chain."

John Willis is nuclear coordinator with Greenpeace.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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