BY Jim Harding
Premier Wall is a committed cheerleader of the uranium industry. He has no shame bragging about the multi-national corporation Cameco making a big uranium sale to India, in spite of India’s refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The Premier only looks narrowly at short-term, trickledown benefits such as jobs and royalties. What about Cameco’s long-term legacy? After all its product is a toxic heavy metal that spreads radioactivity for millions of years. Remember that uranium has only two uses: 1) to fuel highly expensive and subsidized nuclear plants which are associated with childhood leukemia and global disasters like at Chernobyl and Fukushima; and 2) to produce nuclear weapons.
Cameco is a partner of Tepco at Saskatchewan’s Cigar Lake uranium mine. Tepco operates the Fukushima reactors that continue to contaminate Japan. This is not an export industry about which anyone should be proud.
Canada is the largest uranium producer in the world, followed by Australia and Kazakstan. Cameco is the world’s largest uranium corporation, with headquarters In Saskatoon, and is active in all three countries. How did this happen? How did Saskatchewan get so tied into this toxic, unsustainable industry?
Cameco was formed in 1988 with the privatization of two publicly-funded corporations. One, the federal crown corporation Eldorado Nuclear, supplied uranium for U.S.’s nuclear weapons from the 1950s to 1960s. Before that, in 1942, as a private company, it reopened its mine at Port Radium, NWT to provide uranium for the Manhattan Project that led to the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. This all went on in secrecy; it wasn’t until 1962 that Eldorado admitted its central role in the nuclear arms race.
The other public corporation was the Saskatchewan Mining and Development Corporation (SMDC). It was created by the Blakeney NDP government in 1974 to try to strengthen provincial revenue-sharing from the expected uranium boom. The federal Mulroney and provincial Devine Conservative governments put an end to that possibility when they created Cameco.
Cameco and its shareholders were the big winners; it was not the taxpayers who funded these expensive corporations. In 1991 the newly-elected Romanow NDP government appointed the Gass Commission; its report showed there was a writing-down of the value of Cameco’s public share offerings. The government went on to sell all their shares by 2002. The losses to the taxpayers were gigantic; even Premier-elect Grant Devine admitted this in his 1982 campaign to defeat the NDP.
The industry was a huge drain on the public purse before Cameco. In 1977 the NDP nuclear proponents predicted provincial revenues of between $83 and $127 millions in 1982, whereas a mere $29 million dollars was received. Before the NDP’s 1982 defeat, expenditures on the SMDC were already draining the Heritage Fund that was supposed to be for future environmental challenges.At present, just short of 50 years, there are still insufficient funds to contain widespread tailings at the first mine, at Gunnar near Uranium City, which closed in 1966.
Cameco and its corporate partners such as France’s state-owned Areva inherited a royalty policy which has served them well. When Saskatchewan uranium sales reached $650 million in 1996, provincial revenue (royalties and taxes) was only $67 million. A decade later, in 2006, with uranium sales of $600 million, provincial revenues were only $43 million. Cameco’s CEOs were main benefactors, with total compensation during 2008, the year of the global financial crisis, going up from $3.7 to $4.5 million dollars. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative reports that in 2014 total compensation was up again to $4.7 million.
Cameco’s CEO is among the top 100 highest paid Canadian CEOs, who average $9.2 million, which is 190 times the average Canadian income.
Cameco has always been intent on expanding into the larger, highly-subsidized nuclear industry. It had a strong financial foundation when it inherited some of the world’s highest-grade uranium mines, in northern Saskatchewan. It also inherited the federal uranium refinery in Port Hope, Ontario, which was the same refinery used for the Manhattan Project.
In a joint 1991 report with the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), which produced Candu reactors, Cameco projected a massive expansion in Saskatchewan. This saw it moving into uranium enrichment by 1997 and Sask Power building its first Candu-3 reactor by 2000, with three more by 2020. Cameco’s report also saw Saskatchewan as a nuclear waste dump. It even talked of leasing “uranium fuel, taking back the used fuel for disposal, which in turn would enhance the market for Saskatchewan.” And for Cameco, of course!
This forecast proved to be highly self-serving, as things did not bode well for the uranium industry. Even with all the hype about a “nuclear renaissance”, by 2005 renewable energy had surpassed the nuclear industry’s global contribution to electrical generation. Since then nuclear has dropped from 18% to 11% of global electricity and it continues to decline in spite of a few new reactors being planned for India. Many more aging plants will soon have to be shut down. Meanwhile non-toxic renewables, with new storage systems are expanding everywhere, including in the U.S., Europe and China. The world’s largest nuclear corporation and Cameco partner, Areva, faces bankruptcy and more public bailouts. Premier Walls’ Saskatchewan is quickly falling behind as a toxic hinterland.
In 2001 Cameco moved into the nuclear power business, becoming a co-owner of Bruce Power, which operates several Ontario Candu reactors. Cameco/Bruce Power kept its eye on possible expansion into Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Cameco won a loyal ideological ally when the Sask Party was elected in 2008. Within a year Wall’s government launched its Uranium Development Partnership (UDP), a partnership between itself and the nuclear industry. Cameco and its nuclear partners steered this policy-recommending body.
The industry-based UDP aggressively promoted value-adding to the uranium industry. It however faced stringent public opposition; over 80% of those participating in consultations opposed nuclear power and a nuclear waste dump. Premier Wall had underestimated grass-roots Saskatchewan, which clearly wanted a shift to ecologically-sustainable energy. However, this wasn’t about fair consultation and before the UDP report was even issued Bruce Power was promoting nuclear plants along the North Saskatchewan River.
The cost-implications finally penetrated the Sask Party’s mindset and in December 2009 the province announced that nuclear plants wouldn’t be built. The government however continued their collaboration with Cameco and Areva at the Uranium 2010 conference held in Saskatoon in August. And by 2010 the industry’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was going full-speed ahead to bribe and cajole northern Saskatchewan communities, like Pinehouse, to “host” a dump for the two million highly-radioactive spent fuel bundles that had already accumulated at Ontario’s reactors. Cameco’s “collaboration agreement” was an affront to local and provincial democracy and indigenous self-determination.
This industry campaign also failed, after northern and southern communities allied to work for a nuclear waste ban, such as exists in Manitoba and Quebec. Once again grass-roots Saskatchewan saw a better, more responsible future.
CAMECO’S BACK TAXES
Cameco has consistently funded community projects in the north and Saskatoon to look like a good corporate citizen. It targets health and aboriginal organizations to try to counteract the growing awareness that uranium in not good for human health and that mining uranium is not creating a sustainable economy in the north.
Such promotions likely work in the short term, including for tax-write offs. But Cameco is now being investigated for back taxes and penalties amounting to $1.5 billion dollars. The U.S. revenue agency has recently launched its own investigation and Cameco is coming under greater scrutiny in Australia where it co-owns the Kintyre and Yeelirrie mines.
Only political spin-doctors might be able to explain why Premier Wall remains such an unabashed cheerleader of Cameco. The Premier tries to promote his Saskatchewan as forward looking, but this is a myth. With the NDP victory in sister-province Alberta, Saskatchewan becomes the “old Alberta”. It also looks like Premier Wall wants to be the only pro-nuclear premier left in Canada. Regardless of our political preferences, our grandchildren will be left with the toxic legacy being created by the uranium industry.