CCF, Liberal, NDP, Conservative and Sask Party governments all played a role in the nuclear industry getting a foothold in this province. Whether more left or right, all parties held to a post-war development view which could be called “pre-environmental technocracy”. All equated “nuclear” with industrial progress.
One of the first things done by the CCF’s Adult Education division in 1944 was to issue a pro-“atomic power” study guide. Nuclear power was going to be “too cheap to meter”, and, in those early years, there was complete amnesia about nuclear wastes. No wonder it’s been so hard to wean ourselves from the fantasy that nuclear energy is a vehicle of progress for working people. No wonder it’s been so hard for the non-nuclear view to get traction here.
Nevertheless, there’s been a steady evolution of solid opposition to the spread of the nuclear industry. In the late 1950s there was a strong “Ban the Bomb” peace movement here, but in retrospect, in that era of state secrecy, we still had our heads in the sand about Saskatchewan and Canada’s complicity in the nuclear arms race.
CLUFF LAKE INQUIRY
It took the “participatory democracy” of the sixties to break out of our parochial blindness. The environmental movement steadily converged with the non-nuclear peace movement and the post-colonial indigenous movement developing at the time. This happened here during the 1978 Inquiry into uranium mining, which was created by the Blakeney government to ward off support for a moratorium on uranium mining among party members.
Two years before the controversy hit the convention floor in 1976, the NDP government had already created its uranium crown, the SMDC. It already had contracts for exporting uranium to Japan, so the pronuclear recommendations were a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, for the first time after a quarter century operating in secrecy, the uranium industry came under some public scrutiny. While the Cluff and Key Lake mines went ahead, the broader public became more knowledgeable about this mystified technology. And in 1980 the Blakeney government failed to get its desired uranium refinery at Warman. After just a few years the non-nuclear movement was already changing the direction of the province.
Non-nuclear groups then began international networking. In 1988 the International Uranium Congress (IUC), an important precursor to the World Uranium Hearings held in Saltzburg in 1992, was held in Saskatoon. One hundred organizations endorsed the Congress; two hundred attended from ten countries which traded in Saskatchewan uranium. Partly due to the new networks, a uranium mine proposed at Baker Lake, NWT was rejected by local Inuit. German and other delegates became aware of the environmental damage at the huge mines in our north, which further encouraged adopting a nuclear phase-out.
Very little political space however existed for the non-nuclear view to be heard here. Without a fair voting system, opposition could not rally around the Green Party, as it had in Europe, to gain some political clout. Activism shrank while economic pressure to expand the nuclear industry continued to build. It was difficult times for the “non-nukes”; we felt like we lived behind the “uranium curtain”. The Devine government twice tried to build nuclear plants and pressure began for Saskatchewan to become Canada’s nuclear dump. Though the Romanow NDP didn’t promote nuclear power, it accelerated the expansion of mining and Saskatchewan became the world’s largest uranium-producing region. The Calvert NDP tinkered with the same policies, and while introducing the province to wind power, it brought the idea of a uranium refinery off the back burner.
When the Sask Party launched its Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) in 2007 it probably thought that the long-sought nuclear expansion was now a shoe-in. But the pronuclear business lobby and media were caught off guard when thousands participated in local hearings to overwhelmingly oppose the plan. When Bruce Power started promoting nuclear plants along the North Saskatchewan River, before the UDP had finished its report, the province-wide non-nuclear Coalition for a Clean Green Saskatchewan was already emerging. The Sask Party ended up rejecting Bruce Power’s proposal for being cost ineffective, though it continues funding U of S research with GE-Hitatchi on “small” reactors..
In 2011 a huge breakthrough occurred with the formation of the Committee for Future Generations which opposed Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) manipulations in the north. Soon after its successful regional meeting at Beauval, it launched its 7000 Generations Walk to Regina to express opposition to a nuclear dump. The following year another 12,000 signatures calling for a nuclear waste ban, on top of 5,000 previous presented, were given to the Sask Party government.
Non-nuclear activism here, as elsewhere, has been affected by nuclear reactor accidents. The first major accident, at Windscale, England in 1956, was kept as secret as possible, though, to this day, information on the higher-than-reported radioactivity leaks out. The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, USA could not be kept secret, though there was manipulation of information during the crisis. This accident affected public opinion everywhere; here it forced the Blakeney government to abandon its plan to proceed with nuclear power. It discredited the Cluff Lake Inquiry which had used pro-industry disinformation to downplay the probability of accidents.
The 1986 Chernobyl accident forced the Devine government to postpone its promotion of nuclear power to near the end of its term, in 1989, which was too late. The 2011 Fukushima, Japan meltdown will also have long-lasting implications. Tepco, which operates Fukushima’s reactors, is in a joint-venture with Cameco at Cigar Lake. The planned expansion of Japan’s nuclear fleet will however, now not occur; like Germany, Japan will continue with a nuclear phase-out. This is a big blow to the nuclear industry, since following the US and France, Japan is the largest producer of nuclear power. Meanwhile, a recent US court decision that long-term nuclear waste management must be in place before more wastes are produced will curtail expansion there.
The only group still in existence, from 1980, when the Warman uranium refinery was rejected, is the Inter-Church Uranium Committee, now an educational co-op. This is testimony to the pioneering fortitude of those working from an ecumenical faith-perspective. Content analysis of stakeholder briefs during the UDP shows that a coherent non-nuclear perspective that combines “green economics” and “deep ecology” is now fairly widespread.
With so much political space closed off by both major parties supporting some aspect of the nuclear industry, it’s probably taken far-thinking progressive faith-based groups to persist with the difficult work. Secular environmental groups often form in reaction to an issue, and, as happened in both the south and north in the 1980s, these quickly rise and fall.
Saskatchewan has been involved in the nuclear industry almost from its start. The creation of a broad-based non-nuclear perspective here is historically somewhat like the challenge of developing the Social Gospel at the turn of the century, which proved a necessary precursor to the rise of the CCF and the winning of Medicare. It requires thinking beneath the fray of contemporary politics, which often doesn’t see the forest for the trees. We must continue to see the big picture, for this struggle over the nuclear penetration of Saskatchewan is not over!
This Series is dedicated to the memory of an old colleague, Montreal film-maker, Magnus Isacsson (1948-2012), whose NFB film “Uranium” won the Golden Sheaf Award at the 1991 Yorkton Film Festival.