Uranium in Quebec: safe and well-managed

November 23, 2012

The firm where I am employed has done a lot of work in organizing and advising on the devolution of federal responsibilities to provinces and territories in the area of contaminated sites remediation. Some of the real environmental messes involve mine sites, and especially gold mines. Cleaning up these messes is highly complex and costly; see this brief description of cleanup activities at the Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories.

The sign reads “Giant Yellowknife Mine… : where your health and safety count.” If mine owners had meant this they would have implemented the rigorous practices that are common in the uranium extraction industry, and there would be no need for the current massive taxpayer-funded cleanup of the mine site.

For various reasons, the federal government has assumed overall responsibility for doing the painstaking work of planning and implementing the remediation effort. It is a huge issue, and has attracted huge criticism from groups like Mining Watch.

And it could have been entirely avoided had there been oversight like that which the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission exercises in the case of uranium mines. According to the CNSC president Michael Binder, Canada is a world leader in developing uranium resources because the industry has such a good safety record. In a recent open letter apropos of the CNSC granting a license for a uranium mine in Quebec, he says

Uranium mining is the only type of mining that has a dedicated federal regulator that oversees all aspects of operation on an ongoing basis. Provincial oversight is also strictly applied. In fact, uranium mining is the most regulated, monitored and understood type of mining in Canada.

And why does Dr. Binder have such confidence in the safety of the industry that his commission oversees? In his words:

The numbers speak for themselves. Metal mining effluent data reported to Environment Canada demonstrates that uranium mining operations from 2007 to 2010 was 100% compliant with federal release limits for all seven types of contaminants. Uranium mining operations were the only type of metal mine to have 100% compliance during this period.

Uranium mining is the Gold Standard (pun intended) for clean and responsible resource extraction. Perhaps the term should be changed to Uranium Standard. If the owners of the Giant Gold Mine had implemented the practices, procedures, and policies of their colleagues in the uranium extraction industry, there might have been no need today for a costly, complex, and time-consuming cleanup effort.

Those opposed to the proposed uranium mine in Quebec include Aboriginal groups worried about potential damage to their ancestral lands. As I mentioned in “Earth Day 2012” a big chunk of Quebec’s hydroelectricity comes from the northern part of the province. When the provincial hydro system was built huge areas were flooded, and a lot of aboriginals, mostly Cree, were forced out of their ancestral lands. The daughter of a friend of mine is married to a Quebec Cree whose home settlement is now under water. He has fought for years to prove his aboriginal status; it is a heartbreaking and all-too-familiar story.

So I don’t blame Quebec Cree for not trusting outsiders who want to develop resources that are in their territory, especially when it’s a mine. They need only to look at the Giant Mine in the NWT for an example of what can go wrong in spite of written assurances.

I would only point out that of all the types of mining, uranium mining has the least impact on the environment. And it is by far the best regulated. As Dr. Binder points out, the numbers speak for themselves.

I have attended a lot of CNSC hearings since Dr. Binder became president of the commission. He is highly intelligent, brooks no nonsense, and asks penetrating questions—especially when he is dealing with industry representatives. CNSC hearings are often public, and are worth attending even if you don’t have a dog in the fight. Watch the commission president in action. He is tough but fair, and an example for all other regulators to follow. So are the other commissioners.

I would encourage all opponents of the proposed uranium mine to pay close attention to the CNSC hearings on it. I promise they will note the glaring qualitative difference between the claims of those who oppose anything with the word “nuclear” in front of it and those of the CNSC staff. The former are simply opposed to nuclear and will say pretty much anything; the latter are trained and educated in the field.

But don’t take my word for it. Attend a CNSC hearing, either in person or via webcast, and see for yourself.

2 Responses to Uranium in Quebec: safe and well-managed

  1. An Interested Observer
    November 26, 2012 at 4:07 am

    There can be good things rising from even the most dismal of swamps. Out of the MAPLE radioisotope reactor morass, and the NRU ‘dueling documents’ quagmire of 2007 – 2008, Dr. Binder was moved into the CNSC President’s role. He seemed a bit unsure about it all at first with suggestions that he might be there for a short while. But he stayed, and brought much needed vision, direction, leadership, fairness, discipline and clarity to the agency, its licensees and its staff – attributes the CNSC, and its predecessor had been lacking for many years.

    This is one Canadian who wishes to say “Thank you” Dr. Binder.

    • November 26, 2012 at 10:44 am

      Interested Observer: I agree entirely with your list of attributes that Dr. Binder has brought to the job. I have seen him dealing with some very complex and esoteric issues (for but one e.g. the issue of neutron overpower trip setpoints in CANDUs), as well as with the more well-trodden things like tritium signs. In all cases, he brings a level of intelligence, and intellectual respect/humility when it’s not something he is personally familiar with, to the discussion. If his successor — because all good things must end — is anywhere near as solid as he is, then Canadians’ interests will continue to be well served by their nuclear regulator.

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Item 1: if Ontario did not have its nuclear generating fleet, last hour’s CO2 emissions would have been AT LEAST:

5,278 metric tons, and the CIPK would have been 365.7 grams

Item 2: Since prorogation of the Ontario legislature on October 15, 2012, provincial gas-fired generating plants have dumped this much CO2 into our air:

14,348,268 metric tons. This is a running total. Every hour, the total increases by the amount of Gas CO2 given in Table 1.

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