The damage to the environment near a uranium mine or mill can be as widespread and lasting as from bombs or reactors
Many factors have contributed to the myth of the beneficial uranium and reactor industries: guilt, of course; economic benefit to a few (fewer for reactors than other kinds of power production); and government coverups. After all, the industry got started as a weapons industry in wartime, when governments had carte blanche to control every-thing, from what could be said in the media to what was told to workers. At the time, many uranium miners didn't even know what they were mining. Even in the Allied testing of atomic bombs near their own troops, the troops were given reassurances instead of warnings. A large number of mines were started in remote areas where the main people affected were natives. Canada's record on radiation exposure for natives is somewhat similar to its record on disease-infested blankets, mercury, or PCBs.
Looking from a distance at the whole nuclear industry we can probably say that it started as a supposedly necessary wartime defense industry. It proved profit-making and empowering to some and its mistakes, costs and dangers were concealed by the government. The industry acquired a momentum of its own, spinning off its own bureaucracy, including lobbyists, salesman, and an entire education and communication sector to promote the industry's growth.
Although we hear most about the front end of the nuclear industry, such as multimillion dollar fees to middle-men and foreign governments to buy Canadian reactors, or the huge subsidies to keep power industry going, a major part of the industry is the mining and milling of uranium. Although we don't see spectacular immediate damage or threats as with bombs exploding or reactors going critical, the damage to the environment near a uranium mine or mill can be as widespread and lasting as from bombs or reactors.
A typical mining operation may last ten years or more. Because they are generally in remote areas, very few people ever see the mines and mills. Media tend to ignore them.
Urangesellschaft Canada Ltd. has proposed a uranium mine near Baker Lake in the Northwest Territories. The project is called the Kiggavik Uranium Project. When Urangesellschaft presented its environmental assessment, the interveners came up with hundreds the non-governmental submissions, which was 37 pages in length, was from Nuclear Free North, which, incidentally, received the least intervener funding from the government.
The environmental assessment was considered so inadequate by the FEARO panel that the assessment was sent back to be completely redone. Because of the inadequacy of climatological, hydrologic, transportation and radiation exposure data, it would take more than a year of work before another re-port could be finished. The interveners could then review and criticize it, ask for further research, and so on. The FEARO panel would have to decide if the assessment needed further research before public hearings. Even if the entirely government appointed FEARO panel decided against the project, pro-development people in the federal government (with the complacency or complicity of the Northwest Territories) could approve it anyway.
There is solid opposition to uranium mining from most groups in the North-west Territories (except the government). In 1983 the Dene and Metis passed a resolution for their area (the western Northwest Territories) to be nuclear-free. In 1989 every major Inuit group in the Keewatin voted to oppose uranium mining, including the Baker Lake Hamlet Council and the Keewatin Inuit Association. In a plebiscite in Baker Lake 90% of the voters opposed the mine. The Northwest Territories Federation of Labour and the Public Service Alliance Conference of the North both voted in 1989 to oppose the mine.
Think of the following: There is archaeological evidence that Inuit have been living in the area of the proposed mine for at least 8,000 years; the caribou herds that live in the Keewatin are worth $15,000,000 a year in food value alone to the people who hunt them; and the owners of the proposed mine are West German, English and South Korean companies-and no one has stated where the uranium will end up, aside from that the refined ore will be flown to Yellowknife.
Aside from the usual hazards associated with uranium mining and milling (for example, 85% of the radiation in the ore is not shipped out but stays behind to be released into the environment), there are special horrors associated with this project. It is experimental; nothing like it has been tried on arctic tundra.
Rather than having the tailings buried, it is proposed that one huge tailings pile be kept above ground. There is no road or railroad connection to the rest of the area. If there is a major spill or if workers are badly hurt, emergency relief or evacuation of injured people would have to be done by plane. This is an area with high winds and blizzards where planes are regularly grounded for days at a time. Docks, an airfield, and two hundred kilometers of roads would have to be built to get the mine operating.
A 5 well, 19,000 tonnes per year of oil would have to be shipped from either Montreal or Halifax, through Hudson strait, then across the northern part of Hudson Bay, through Chesterfield Inlet, across Baker Lake, and then overland to the mine site. The potential damage from an oil spill in Hudson Bay is enormous, because of circular cur-rents.
Consider too, the hazards of flying the yellowcake to Yellowknife-a crash could happen in a city of 14,000, or if it happened in Great Slave Lake, contamination would spread through the Lake into the Mackenzie River System. And, who knows where the yellowcake will be flown after Yellowknife?
For those who don't care about Canada's sales of reactor technology, or sales of Candu reactors to South Korea, the United States, India, Pakistan, Romania and so forth, please read Bunge's Nuclear War Atlas and see how radioactive plumes from reactors like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl both went over Canada. Materials we sell which can be used for defective reactors, atomic tests and bombs, can blow back in our faces. Think about it!
John Murray is a co-ordinator with Nuclear Free North, is on the Canadian Peace Alliance's Steering Committee, and chairs the Environmental Committee in the Union of Northern Workers.