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Local Indigenous peoples protest possible licence renewal for world’s largest uranium mine.

In June, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will hold hearings about renewing the licence for Cameco’s McArthur River uranium mine, located in the Athabasca basin in Saskatchewan’s rugged far north.

Davis Legree, Apr 13, 2023

The operator of the world’s largest uranium mine is seeking a new 20-year licence from Canada’s nuclear regulator but some Indigenous peoples in northern Saskatchewan are calling for the application to be rejected or scaled back, citing health concerns.

“The Athabasca River basin is under siege,” said Candyce Paul, outreach coordinator for the advocacy group Committee for Future Generations. “The people here have had enough of this industrial colonialism that is going on.”

In June, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will hold hearings about renewing the licence for Cameco’s McArthur River uranium mine, located in the Athabasca basin in Saskatchewan’s rugged far north.

Paul, a member of English River First Nation, on whose territory several of Cameco’s mining sites are located, said her community is frustrated by the company’s lack of transparency, as well as human health concerns associated with uranium mining.

“Quite frankly, some of the community members are getting really fed up with the footprint this industry is having on the land and there’s been actual talk of blocking the main road from the mine,” said Paul.

Uranium, which ranges in use from atomic weapons to powering nuclear reactors, was initially discovered in the Athabasca Basin in the late 1960s. According to Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, the volume and grade of the deposits found in northern Saskatchewan have led those in the industry to dub the area “the Saudi Arabia of uranium.”

“Canada has the richest uranium mines in the world around the Athabasca Basin,” said Edwards, who explained uranium ‘richness’ refers to the grade and what percentage of uranium there is in a ton of ore.

According to Edwards, uranium in the Athabasca Basin is considerably richer than uranium deposits found elsewhere in Canada, which makes it more lucrative. However, Edwards continued, mining rich uranium deposits can be problematic for the health of local communities.

“When you mine uranium, since it’s radioactive, there’s a chain of progeny, which are radioactive by-products of uranium,” explained Edwards. “These include radium, radon gas, certain isotopes of thorium, and polonium – all highly toxic materials.”

Edwards said that around 85 per cent of the radioactivity in mined uranium ore is left behind in “voluminous sand, like tailings from a mill,” adding that Canada has around “220 million tonnes of this stuff.”

These radioactive and toxic tailings areas should be of concern to communities in the Athabasca Basin, said Edwards, because richer uranium ore means the radioactivity is more concentrated in the waste.

Paul believes her community has been adversely affected from living in close proximity to large-scale uranium mining activities. She cited issues regarding increased cancer rates among English River members, which she said “could be related to radiation exposure.”

Paul said her community has contacted Health Canada, Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health, and several epidemiologists about conducting health studies in the area, only to be told that their population is too small to justify an assessment.

That being said, Cameco’s licence renewal application to the CNSC referenced a federally funded human health risk evaluation that was conducted in the English River First Nation in 2017.

Regardless, Paul said she would intervene in the upcoming licence renewal hearings, which are scheduled to be held June 7-8 in Saskatoon. Initially, Cameco had requested an indefinite licence term for McArthur River and several other sites, but, following Indigenous consultation activities, the company has since walked back their application to 20 years.

When asked if local Indigenous communities were satisfied with a 20-year term, Cameco spokesperson Veronica Baker said in an email that the application for an indefinite licence was abandoned because “communities expressed uncertainty with what an indefinite licence term means and how it fits within existing regulatory and engagement frameworks.” However, she did not clarify whether these communities approved of the 20-year application.

According to Paul, the CNSC would set a dangerous precedent by granting           Cameco a 20-year licence.

“Twenty years is too long,” she told iPolitics. “It would be nice to see the CNSC reject a 20-year licence and go for something for reasonable, like five or ten years, although even ten is too much.”

Neither Paul nor Edwards has much confidence that the CNSC will reject Cameco’s 20-year application.

“From our perspective, it will look like a rubber stamp,” said Paul.

According to Edwards, the current iteration of the CNSC, which has only existed since 2000, has “never refused to grant a licence to any major nuclear facility in their entire existence.”

“The public has very little opportunity to question the practices going on,” he continued. “There’s a widespread feeling in the NGO community that we have a captured regulator in the CNSC, which reports to the natural resources minister, who is also responsible for promoting uranium mining and exports.”

A review of Lobby Canada’s registry reveals Cameco officials met in recent           months with Rumina Velshi, the CNSC’s president and CEO, and Ramzi Jammal, the regulator’s executive vice-president. However, both Cameco and the CNSC denied that the upcoming licence renewal hearing was discussed.

Edward said Cameco’s initial attempt at securing an indefinite licence term is indicative of an industry trend that is seeing longer licensing periods being granted and, as a result, less public oversight, and [fewer opportunities] for accountability.

“Unfortunately, that’s the direction they’re moving in,” he said.

According to CNSC spokesperson Renée Ramsey, individuals and organizations who want to intervene in the hearing have until April 24 to submit their requests, at which point the submissions from intervenors will be made publicly available. Ramsey also said the CNSC panel that will be leading the upcoming hearing has yet to be appointed.


April 17, 2023 - Posted by | Canada, indigenous issues, Uranium

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