Uranium in Saskatchewan: as safe as broadcasting

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.

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10 years ago

Safer than broadcasting, as far as public harm goes. Transmitting false stories that increase peoples fear and uncertainty is a real danger of broadcasting that has been witnessed to disrupt societies, wreck economies and induce suicides.

James Greenidge
10 years ago
Reply to  Joffan

Funny. If the major media were truly all that sincerely concerned of the public health and welfare they’d be pouring over major stories of these non-speculative non-“iffy” non-“maybe” sobering real-life consequences of totally irresponsible and coyly biased anti-nuclear reporting and clueless FUD-based government policies, but they’re never going to call another out on the carpet on that. That they sweep such tens of thousands of true life horror stories under the carpet to continue to fan jitters and tacitly promote anti-nuclear FUD and push stories demonizing zero-causality nuclear incidents sans any comparisons with other highly fatal energy facility incidents is outright criminal. What humongous hypocrites of “truth” the 4th estate is!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

10 years ago

Odd that Saskatchewan like Australia exports so much uranium, yet runs on coal and gas itself. It is now adding a $12B/Gw carbon capture coal plant -3 times the cost per Gwh of the Scana AP1000 nuke plant in Georgia. Not one Candu was every built there.

Can you spell hypocrites.

An Interested Observer
10 years ago
Reply to  seth

I suggest to you that building, or not building a nuclear plant in Saskatchewan has more to do with economics of the electrical energy marketplace, and less to do with a dogmatic rejection of the technology. Calling the good people of Saskatchewan, and their elected representatives hypocrites is thus harsh and unfair. Perhaps is the demand side of the equation could be strengthened, i.e., if Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta could come together to develop a regional marketplace, then a reasonable regional approach to the supply side would be to build a nuclear plant.

10 years ago

From the Alberta PC Leadership debate (link to a transcript I copied from the Calgary Herald’s web site. The original and the google cache seem to be, unfortunately, gone.):

Question: Are you support of developing nuclear power in Alberta? Why or why not?

Alison Redford: No. We do not require nuclear power in Alberta

Question: what are your reasons for opposing nuclear power in Alberta?

Alison Redford: We do not need it. And Albertans are, justifiably, afraid of it.

James Greenidge
10 years ago
Reply to  crf

re: “Alison Redford: We do not need it. And Albertans are, justifiably, afraid of it.”

Wonder if she/they have a certified reason to outside of certifiably rootless fear.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

George Carlin
10 years ago

I don’t know if you have seen this story, but it has been making the rounds in a number of Ontario newspapers.


I have been trying my best to combat it wherever I see it pop up. It is an op-ed by two medical doctors demonizing Ontario nuclear power and pushing for more “renewable” energy. There is not even a hint of effort to reference any of their claims, which I found astounding coming from 2 medical doctors who are also either assistant or adjunct professors.

George Carlin
10 years ago
Reply to  George Carlin

Edit, I see the Huffington Post version has links to articles referencing their claims. The last 2 versions I have come upon had no references.

James Greenidge
10 years ago
Reply to  George Carlin

I just don’t understand how the nuclear industry — and even more, nuclear professional organizations — chronically take anti-nuke hits sitting down with nary any rebuttals much less (WISH!) aggressive nuclear education PSAs to counter all the mud and FUD. Have these people ever heard of promoting your self-interest or self-preservation? We have cable puppy dog rescue PSAs produced by one-room outfits running in NYC metro yet not one pro-nuclear ad or PSA here supporting Indian Point by nuclear industry/professional organizations whose coffee budgets could probably fund Puppy Rescue PSAs several times over. Really, I’d fire the whole lot of nuclear PR offices everywhere and start anew with fresh aggressive creative DOERS with gonads.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

The Real Truth
10 years ago

Has anyone done a real survey on which power source has caused the most deaths in the world over the last 50 years. Or don’t we want to know the Real Truth! Its certainly NOT NUCLEAR!