My home province, Ontario, runs in large part on uranium from Saskatchewan. Check Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar: they show the sources of Ontario electricity over two periods, in descending order from largest to smallest. At almost no time since the 1980s has nuclear not been at the top of that or similar lists. It is always the biggest single source putting electricity into the provincial grid.
Without nuclear, the 10,204 megawatts of energy that, says Table 1, Ontario nuclear plants were generating at 0600 this morning (November 30, 2012) would have come from fossil fuel sources. And the figure under “CO2, tons” would at 0600 have read 5,612 instead of zero. (You can do that counterfactural yourself any time. Just multiply the “MW” figure for nuclear by 0.55, which is the carbon dioxide emission factor for natural gas-fired electricity generation. The result will give the number of metric tons of CO2 that gas-fired generators would have emitted.)
For this reason, it matters to me and 12 million other Ontarians where the uranium that fuels our most important electricity generators comes from. As mentioned, it comes from Saskatchewan. That province has some of the richest uranium deposits in the world. Uranium extraction in Saskatchewan is, therefore, a hugely important industry not just to Saskatchewan and Ontario, but also to Canada as a country—and numerous other countries around the world.
An underground uranium mine. A joint venture involving uranium companies Cameco and Areva wants to expand mining operations in northern Saskatchewan, and has offered the local community a deal in which the community will receive annual cash payments and members will get jobs at the mine. In return, the community agrees to not oppose the operations when the companies apply for government permits.
A recent CBC As it Happens interview took up the issue of a deal between a couple of uranium companies—Cameco and Areva—and a northern-Saskatchewan community, Pinehouse, over soon-to-be expanded mining operations in the area. Under this deal, the community would promise not to oppose the companies when the companies seek various government approvals necessary to conduct uranium mining. The As it Happens interviewer led off one question (06:11 into the interview) with the following:
There are very well known environmental and health concerns about waste rock from uranium, from the tailings from uranium mining. Does this [the deal] mean you will not be able to question how… those tailings, how the waste rock is… disposed of?
The interviewer is correct in saying “[t]here are very well known environmental and health concerns about waste rock from uranium.” There certainly are concerns, just like there are concerns about, say, radio frequency waves coming from cell phone and radio transmitters. These issues have been studied up the ying yang, and nobody can find evidence of a threat to the public. In spite of this, the rest of the interviewer’s question makes it sound like she believes the interviewee—in this case the mayor of Pinehouse, SK, who supports the deal with the companies—has agreed, in return for money, to keep silent when environmental and health issues come up.
Is that really the case? Does the As it Happens interviewer really believe that a community has not been consulted, or that if the companies really create a dangerous situation or workplace the community is really obliged to stay quiet? What nonsense. If the companies don’t hold up their end of the agreement, and that includes complying with all safety and environmental laws and regulations, then the deal is as dead as it is if the community doesn’t hold up its end.
Will the companies hold up their end? Given their history of safe operation in Saskatchewan, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet they will. Uranium mining is, like broadcasting, a safe activity. This is not just an idle claim. As I mentioned last week, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which oversees the nuclear industry in this country, said in a recent statement that:
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.
So, while the As it Happens interviewer was right in saying “there are very well known environmental and health concerns about waste rock from uranium,” the full compliance of uranium mining operations with federal environmental rules suggests those concerns are being addressed. Uranium mining is safe and clean.
Moreover, a representative from Areva Saskatchewan (a member of the joint venture that wants to develop the mines) told me yesterday in an email that:
According to the Saskatchewan Workers Compensation Board figures, uranium mining one of the province’s safest industries with lower injury rates than working in government, construction, or healthcare.
I wonder if it is safer than broadcasting.
The Areva rep also said this:
AREVA and the Saskatchewan uranium mining industry are among the largest industrial employers of Aboriginal people in Canada. Furthermore, the jobs offer an above-average pay scale and benefits, with numerous opportunities for training and advancement.
Pinehouse is primarily a Métis (mixed-blood) community. According to the 2006 census, the population was 1,075. Of the 630 members who were at the time older than the age of 15, 525 did not have a postsecondary certificate, diploma or degree.
The place is poor. They need jobs. I hope the Pinehouse residents can get well-paying jobs in the uranium mines, because the employment will better their lives. And I, a beneficiary of uranium mine output, also want to continue reaping the benefits of nuclear energy here in Ontario.