Oct 17/97: The Legacy of Nuclear Energy in Canada


Uranium Mining and Waste Disposal in Saskatchewan

Tariq Hassan-Gordon
October 17, 1997

The fallout from Ontario Hydro's recent shutdown of seven nuclear reactors has devastated the agenda of the nuclear industry. The significant impact of decades of government atomic energy policies is not Ontario's increased financial debt but the environmental crisis in northern Saskatchewan which will continue to affect the region's Aboriginal communities for thousands of years.

There are three stages to the nuclear fuel cycle: uranium mining (the front end), conversion to nuclear fuel for use in CANDU reactors and the disposal of high level radioactive waste (the back end). There are environmental problems at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. Uranium mining has a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal communities because all the mines are near First Nation communities. Additionally, the disposal of high level radioactive waste, because the planned disposal sites are on First Nation territory, will severely affect Aboriginal peoples to a far greater degree than people in the rest of Canada.

Uranium Mining Destroying Dene Communities

Canada is the largest producer of uranium in the world. In 1995 Canada mined over 10,515 tonnes of uranium which accounted for 32% of the world market. A 20 kilogramme uranium fuel bundle requires ten tonnes of uranium ore. Miles Goldstick, author of Wolaston: People Resisting Genocide, estimates that the solid radioactive uranium mill waste in northern Saskatchewan is over 25 million tonnes.

In 1996 the Elliot Lake uranium mines closed in Ontario. All of the uranium mines in Canada are now located in Northern Saskatchewan in an area inhabited by 20,000 Indigenous people. The 35 Dene and Metis communities account for two thirds of the population of Northern Saskatchewan.

The Centre for World Indigenous Studies presented the report The Uranium Industry and Indigenous Peoples of North America to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The report says that: "The potential long-range health and environmental hazards of uranium mining and milling, especially for communities still dependent for a major part of their subsistence on hunting and fishing, need to be fully and publicly assessed before a project proceeds."

A 1984 report on health conditions in northern Saskatchewan by a professor at the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Regina stated that cancer deaths are about 30% higher than the national average and that "Northern Treaty Indians are hospitalized 61% more often than the average Saskatchewan resident. Since 1975, hospitalizations for cancer, birth defects and circulatory illnesses have increased dramatically. At the same time, there is a large increase in hospitalizations among young children for digestive disorders and birth anomalies."

Despite evidence of health problems the Mines Pollution Control Branch of the Saskatchewan Ministry of the Environment published a report which stated that "the levels of uranium and radium are not of concern." Up until 1982 Saskatchewan uranium mines dumped radioactive waste directly into lakes and rivers. According to Goldstick the mining companies' practice was to dilute the radioactive tailings into the surrounding bodies of water.

Recent research suggest now that radium released from waste tailings is dangerous to human and animals. A research team at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, University of California concluded that, "perhaps the solution to the radon problem is to zone the land in uranium mining and milling districts so as to forbid human habitation."

First Nation communities in northern Saskatchewan have been irreversibly affected by uranium mining. Unfortunately future plans to bury high level radioactive waste from Canadian CANDU reactors in the Canadian Shield is also a critical concern for those same communities.

Racism Behind AECL's Nuclear Waste Disposal Agenda

A key issue facing Ontario Hydro is the disposal of the nucle ar reactors and the thousands of tonnes of highly radioactive waste that is temporarily stored on sites at Ontario Hydro's nuclear power plants. In Canada the responsibility for permanent high level nuclear waste disposal is with the AECL. In 1988 the Minister of Mines and Resources referred the AECL's proposal, Deep Geological Burial of Nuclear Waste in the Canadian Shield to the federal Environmental Assessment and Review Process.

Irene Kock of the Durham Nuclear Awareness Project said, "the nuclear fuel burial proposal is still in limbo and is awaiting the report from the federal environmental assessment panel which is due out this fall."

If the nuclear fuel burial proposal is approved by the Canadian and Ontario governments, Ontario Hydro suggests that the "targeted in-service date for a used fuel disposal facility is 2025." Nuclear waste, then, will continue to be stored on the temporary sites for another 27 years.

The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) presented a brief to the Federal Environmental Assessment Panel on the AECL's proposal. Point 3 of the CCNR's brief states:

"The inhabitants of the Canadian Shield are, for the most part, Aboriginal peoples and small, sometimes isolated communities. With few exceptions, these people had no say in the production of high level radioactive wastes, and received little or none of the electrical energy that accompanied the production of these wastes. Moreover, they have neither the resources nor the expertise to assess the nature of the wastes which will be visited upon them by the government and the nuclear industry."
The primary location for the AECL's geological burial proposal is the Meadow Lake First Nation in north western Saskatchewan. On June 30, 1993, the Tribal Council approved a motion to conduct a "feasibility study with the attached Terms of Reference to determine the commercial viability of a used fuel disposal enterprise." One of the Terms of Reference is to "determine the commercial opportunities associated with providing spent nuclear fuel storage and disposal services to domestic and international clients."

The Meadow Lake Tribal Council's project proposal is called The Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Economic Development Initiative, Aboriginal Peoples of Saskatchewan. The rationale for the project is that: "The project will also offer Saskatchewan's Aboriginal peoples, First Nation and Metis alike, an opportunity to play a key role in protecting Mother Earth and safeguarding nuclear materials".

Grassroots Native groups have formed across North America to oppose the actions of their Band Council Leaders, many of whom have been accused of corruption. Grace Thorpe, president of the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans (NECONA) suggests that North American governments are targeting First Nations because "their lands are some of the most isolated in North America, they are some of the most impoverished and consequently most politically vulnerable and, perhaps most importantly, tribal sovereignty can be used to bypass state [provincial] environmental laws."

In Saskatchewan the Indigenous Women's Environmental Network (IWEN), an ad-hoc group of Aboriginal women in Saskatchewan, is organizing specifically to oppose the Meadow Lake Tribal Council. IWEN states "The issue that is foremost in our minds at this point, and the main driving force behind wanting to organize Indigenous women in Saskatchewan, is the new threat to all our lives in the form of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council's proposal to build a permanent high level nuclear waste repository in northern Saskatchewan."

In order to oppose the Canadian and U.S. government nuclear waste disposal agenda, NECONA is promoting a movement to pressure tribal governments to declare First Nations Nuclear Free Zones. Over 70 First Nations in Canada and the U.S. have become Nuclear Free Zones. In a speech on March 17, 1995 in Denver Colorado, Thorpe said,

"Those supporting such [nuclear waste] are selling our sovereignty. The utilities are using our names and our trust lands to bypass environmental regulations. The issue is not sovereignty. The issue is Mother Earth's preservation and survival. The issue is environmental racism. The purpose of NECONA is to invite tribes to express their sovereign national rights in a more creative way in favour of our Mother, by joining a growing number of tribal governments that are choosing to declare their lands Nuclear Free Zones."
There are now 46 First Nations' Nuclear Free Zones in Canada. They include the First Nations of Alberta Treaty 6, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Beaver First Nation and the Lubicon Lake Band.

Disposal Sites More Political than Scientific

The AECL states that the Canadian Shield is the most suitable site for permanent storage and the Meadow Lake Tribal Council argues that Aboriginal people are the largest component of the Canadian Shield's population so the nuclear fuel burial proposal should be run by Aboriginal people to ensure the maximum economic dev elopment benefits.

However, the AECL agenda is more political then scientific. In Paul McKay's book Electric Empire he states: "The nuclear waste controversy first erupted in Ontario in 1977, when the federal government announced its intention to establish a waste disposal research site near Madoc [east of Peterborough]." The public outrage shocked the AECL officials. The AECL was opposed in every community that they approached, Renfrew County (1978), Atikokan (1979), Temiskaming (1980) and Massey (1981).

AECL has chosen to develop the waste disposal sites in a remote Aboriginal community in northern Saskatchewan because it is politically expedient - not because of scientific or environmental reasons. The community is isolated, has a high level of unemployment and is more vulnerable to political pressure.

The impact of the front and back end of the nuclear fuel cycle in Canada has severely and disproportionately affected the health of the Aboriginal peoples in Northern Saskatchewan.

The lack of environmental safety regulations during early uranium mining has created, according to Ward Churchill in his book Struggle for the Land, "National Sacrifice Zones." National Sacrifice Zones are areas predominately on or near Native land which the North American governments have deemed an expendable environmental cost to maintain North America's energy needs.

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