The uranium mining going on in the north since the 1950s, first to fuel U.S. nuclear weapons and then nuclear power plants, has made northern Saskatchewan one of the world’s largest uranium tailings dumps. Meanwhile, Cameco is preparing its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to get approval for yet another huge mine, which they call the Millennium Project. This mine would be 150 km from Wollaston Lake, an area already inundated with radioactive tailings from past mines. The 1993 federal-provincial environment review was so concerned about the cumulative impact of these mines that they recommended that Areva’s proposed Midwest mine not go ahead and that its McClean Lake mine be postponed.
The proposed Millennium mine would be half way between Cameco’s operating McArthur River mine, the largest in the world, and the uranium-depleted Key Lake mine north on the Pinehouse road which still operates a processing mill and tailings dump. The proposed new mine site is 500 km north of Saskatoon. If it was close to Saskatoon where Cameco has its head office, or to Regina where the pro-uranium government resides, or to southern cities like Swift Current or Yorkton, it would not receive approval.
Some are calling this huge double standard “environmental racism”. However, unless both northerners and southerners organize to oppose this mine, Cameco likely hasn’t much to worry about. Even when an environmental review recommended against a uranium mine going ahead, such as in 1993, the mining lobby got its way. And so the Midwest and McClean Lake mines opened regardless of concerns about cumulative effects. The Saskatchewan Party’s move towards environmental de-regulation and corporate self-regulation will favour fast-tracking this new profitable mining project. And the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is already so compromised by its mishandling of radioactive contamination at Port Hope and Chalk River, Ontario that it can’t be counted on as a neutral and objective regulator. Neither Saskatchewan’s Ministry of the Environment or the CNSC would dare say “no” to Cameco’s new mine, even though it is not, in any sense, about creating a sustainable economy in the north.
The ore body contains 47 million pounds of U308 or “yellowcake” that would be shipped to Cameco’s Blind River refinery and Port Hope conversion plant in Ontario. The 4.5 percent uranium in the ore body makes this a very lucrative, cost-effective find. Uranium is a non-renewable toxic resource and its supplies are steadily dwindling. Cameco is therefore interested in getting this high-grade ore mined as quickly as possible, while the shrinking nuclear power industry is still profitable. This project will also help compensate for Cameco’s failure to get another even higher-grade underground mine at Cigar Lake on-steam on time, due to continual costly flooding.
Cameco wants to start road construction at the Millennium mine in two years and then start sinking the 600-700 meter shafts to extract the ore. Their plan is to transport the ore in giant mining trucks such as used in Alberta’s tarsands 57 km to Key Lake for milling and tailings disposal. They estimate they will be mining and transporting up to 200,000 tonnes of ore a year, so the carbon footprint of this proposed project would be mammoth.
Cameco plans to mine out this ore body within 6 or 7 years. Uranium mining is extremely capital-intensive and provides very few jobs per millions invested compared to renewable energy resources. The meagre trickling down of short-term benefits to a few individuals in the north simply can’t provide any long-term foundation for a sustainable economy. Industry rhetoric aside, only a pittance of the value of the uranium comes back to the province as revenue. By the time uranium sales reached $600 million in 2006, provincial royalties were only $43 million. In 2008 Cameco’s CEO earned $4.5 million, a third of the $ 14 million uranium royalties going to the province in 2003, and more than BP’s present CEO.
ASSAULT ON NORTH
Cameco says that when it decommissions this mine it will restore the area to its previous, pristine state. This is public relations nonsense. The mine would be in the Wheeler River area of the Athabasca Plains, an undisturbed area of boreal forest presently used by First Nations and Métis for hunting, trapping and fishing. This mine would be yet another assault on the renewable economy in the north, which must be protected for there to be any long-term plan for sustainability. The warning was given in 1993, when the federal-provincial environmental review said “It is not a question whether or not there will be cumulative environmental impacts, but of their magnitude.” Referring to the area west of Wollaston Lake and south of Hatchet Lake, it said the overall effect of mining operations “…with the possibility of interconnected roads and power lines, would be widespread…the entire area might become unproductive for traditional hunting, fishing and gathering activities.”
If Millennium gets the go ahead the mine workers will be based at Key Lake. The only reason for pushing the road through to the proposed new mine is to extract profitable uranium, and Cameco says it may shut down the road down and remove power lines to the mine after it closes. But the damage will be done. The massive water required for this mine would be pumped from nearby Slush Lake and the “treated” effluent would then be pumped back into Moon Lake, which is part of the Wheeler River system in the region which flows into Wollaston Lake. This will inevitably contaminate the lakes and river with toxic heavy metals and present yet another risk of radioactive spills such as have already occurred at Key Lake and Rabbit Lake.
The 21 km new road will degrade many streams along the way. Sediment and radioactive ore spillage along the road is inevitable once the extraction project is no longer under public scrutiny. Cost-cutting to enhance the bottom line is commonplace once these mega-projects are full-steam ahead. We’ve already seen the industry cut these kinds of corners at Uranium City, Rabbit Lake, Cluff Lake, Key Lake and other mines.
BLENDING WITH NATURE
Cameco’s decommissioning plan focuses on the appearance, not the toxicity of the land. It says it will contour the waste rock left at the site to fit the terrain and then re-vegetate this. This superficial “blending” with nature ignores the long-term ecological impacts. What about all the added radioactive tailings that will be left at Key Lake after milling the ore? The mined-out Dielmann pit at Key Lake already presents huge problems as a tailings dump. Averaging nearly 5 percent uranium, tailings from the Millennium mine would be highly radioactive. One by-product, thorium, which ultimately breaks down into radium and radon gas, has a half-life of 76,000 years which means its radioactive by-products will be bio-available to migrate into the eco-systems for hundreds of thousands of years. Creating this long-term risk for a few years of profitable mining, with few local benefits, is, in a nutshell, what unsustainable development means.
Sustainability requires a shift in perspective; rather than focusing on the short-term value of Cameco’s stocks on the market, we need developmental indicators in place that require us to protect the planet for future generations. The proposed Millennium mine would be another step in the wrong direction, further degrading the land and undermining the renewable economy.
The million dollar question is: will this be the uranium mine that finally catalyses widespread northern opposition to this industry and the radioactive tailings it leaves behind as it takes its big profits to the bank?