BY Jim Harding
Hundreds gathered in Quebec City April 14-16th for the World Uranium Symposium (WUS). The event occurred while Canada’s First Ministers were gathering to discuss climate change. Two days before 25,000 people demonstrated against the Harper government’s fixation on fossil-toxic fuels.
The Quebec Cree already supported a ban on uranium mining. And in a few weeks the Quebec Uranium Commission will be releasing its recommendations on whether the province’s uranium mining moratorium should stay. Quebec has already decided to phase-out nuclear power and to ban the importation of nuclear wastes.
The WUS’s sponsoring bodies reflect the emerging coalition for sustainability. The Cree Nation of Mistissini and the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Sustainable Development Institute joined hands with the Physicians for Global Survival (PGS-MSM), the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and Physicians for Social Responsibility/International Physicians for the Prevention of nuclear War (IPPNW). Nature Quebec joined hands with MiningWatch Canada, the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and the Helen Caldicott Foundation. Artists for Peace joined the symposium and on April 15th a 10-day Uranium Film Festival, with showings in Quebec City, Mistissini and Montreal, was launched.
Some sponsors have important international profiles. The IPPNW was created in 1980 and quickly grew to 135,000 members in 41 countries. In 1985 it was awarded the Noble Peace Prize. It was instrumental in getting Gorbachev and Reagan to agree to meet in Iceland in 1986, which started the de-escalation of the nuclear arms race. In 2010 the IPPNW called for a ban on uranium mining. With growing evidence of nuclear power’s role in childhood leukemia and catastrophes from Chernobyl in 1986 to Fukushima in 2011, IPPNW country chapters are calling for a complete shift in energy policy.
This unprecedented coalition brought together people from 5 continents and 20 countries. Speakers came from Canada, the USA, Australia, the UK, France Germany, Japan, India, Switzerland, the Netherlands, South Africa, Bangladesh, Greenland, Cameroon, Mali and Mongolia. There were people from northern, urban and rural Saskatchewan: from Beauval, La Ronge, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, Wynyard and Fort Qu’Appelle.
There were seven plenaries and 30 workshops with 50 presenters. The first day addressed uranium mining, milling, refining and enrichment. The environmental health impacts of radioactive and toxic wastes all along the front-end of the nuclear fuel chain were explored and exposed. This included the community and cultural impacts on indigenous communities from Australia to India, to the United States and Canada. There was example after example of how industry and government had failed to contain uranium waste sites.
Saskatchewan’s first uranium mine, the Gunnar mine near Uranium City, started mining for U.S. nuclear weapons in 1953. It was abandoned in 1963. In 2006 the cost of cleanup was estimated to be $24 million; $60 million has already been spent and the Saskatchewan government has set the total liability at $200 million.
While Premier Wall brags about uranium shipments to India, the 50-year old Gunner mine still doesn’t have sufficient federal and provincial funding to contain its radioactive contamination in the north.
The second day addressed nuclear power, its safety and accidents, the nuclear weapons connections, including with depleted uranium (DU) and the challenges of nuclear disarmament. Again example after example showed governments and industry failing to protect future generations.Nuclear industry-generated myths were debunked:nuclear medicine does not depend on the continuation of nuclear power; nuclear power is not a cost-effective or timely way to reduce greenhouse gases.
There were encouraging discussions of the transition to energy efficiency and renewables: a new energy paradigm that stresses human needs and wellbeing is emerging. The percentage of global electricity coming from nuclear power has steadily dropped, from 18% to only 11% over the last decade. The world’s largest nuclear corporation, France’s state corporation Areva, a uranium partner with Cameco in northern Saskatchewan, is heading for bankruptcy and more public bailouts.
When Saskatchewan’s premier pitches uranium sales he is hitching the province’s future to a toxic, unsustainable energy system. Unfortunately the mainstream political parties and media here remain in a “uranium bubble”.
The third day heard from indigenous people facing the brunt of the uranium-nuclear system. There were people from areas devastated by uranium mining In Australia and Canada and from areas presently being targeted for new uranium mines in Nunavut and Greenland. Participants stood to applaud the brave people from isolated communities in Mali and Mongolia, who presently face the aggression of the uranium mining industry.
I had the privilege of chairing the summary plenaries that helped create a Declaration incorporating the wide range of reports and perspectives. I have witnessed the steady evolution of global non-nuclear consciousness since the International Uranium Congress was held in Saskatoon in 1988. That event, held in the aftermath of Chernobyl, brought together people who were impacted by Saskatchewan uranium exports. In 1992 I witnessed the coming together of nuclear victims from around the globe at the World Uranium Hearings in Salzburg.
The World Uranium Symposium (WUS) was held four years after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Naoto Kan, Japan’s Prime Minister at the time, sent a video message of solidarity to the WUS, explaining that he realized that it was now time for the world to put an end to nuclear power. Tepco which operates the dysfunctional Fukushima reactors remains a uranium partner with Cameco in northern Saskatchewan.
The Harper government is indifferent to the continuing nuclear threat. While the WUS was meeting, Harper was welcoming India’s Prime Minister Modi to sign a nuclear partnership agreement that involves buying uranium from Cameco. This was foolishly touted as a means to curtail climate change. No mention that Cameco could owe Canada back taxes and penalties of $1.5 billion. Saskatchewan’s tax losses could rival the royalties expected from uranium sales to India.
All nuclear trade with India was stopped after it used Canadian reactor technology to develop its first nuclear weapon, tested in 1974. Though it remains a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Canada has again opened up nuclear trade with India; Saskatchewan uranium will free up other uranium for its weapons program. Canada does not even include a ban on the use of depleted uranium (DU) in its trade agreement with India.
A glaring international double standard exists. Negotiations with Iran, which is a signatory to the NPT, are rightly aimed at preventing its uses of uranium for weapons purposes.Israel, like India, is not a signatory to the NPT and yet both countries are left to advance their covert weapons program.
We will need more truth and less hypocrisy to make the transition to international peace and security. Presently, nine countries have an estimated 17,300 weapons; 1,800 of these, mostly in the U.S. and Russia, are on high alert. Accidents can happen with nuclear weapons as well as with nuclear reactors.
In 2007 the IPPNW, began its International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). It has held meetings in Oslo (2013) and Mexico and Vienna (2014). In Vienna participants from 158 countries signed the Austrian Pledge to work for a “legally binding instrument for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. “ This position was endorsed in the Quebec City WUS Declaration.
The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) also presented at the WUS. Depleted uranium (DU) is a byproduct of uranium enrichment.Weapons made with this radioactive and chemically toxic heavy metal have been employed since the 1970s and especially since the 1991 Gulf War. Much of the DU stockpile can be traced back to decades of Saskatchewan uranium exports.
DU weapons were widely used in Bosnia and during the invasion of Iraq. DU weapons can change human DNA and once ingested are considered a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization. DU can migrate into drinking water.
Since 2007 five resolutions on DU weapons have been passed by the UN’s General Assembly. The 2014 resolution passed 150 to 4 with 27 abstentions. The four opposing were the US, the UK, France and Israel. Canada has consistently abstained. Iraq, the country most affected by DU-related cancers, has called for a global ban.
The global movements to phase out uranium mining and nuclear power continue to make gains. Movements for peace and disarmament have also achieved bans on biological and chemical weapons as well as the Landmine Treaty and a Convention banning Cluster Bombs. The question remains why nuclear weapons are still allowed. Could this have anything to do with the permanent members of the UN Security Council all having nuclear weapons? And each having a veto!
A successful banning of DU weapons could provide the template for the eventual banning of all nuclear weapons. After the WUS, indigenous, medical, environmental, non-nuclear, cultural and peace organizations will be better able to work together for a full nuclear phase-out. It is a dangerous time, but one full of opportunity.