The Matoush Project in northern Quebec, via Strateco.
When I think about uranium mining and nuclear power, it’s hard not to think of major bummers like the atomic bomb, the Cold War, deformed bodies, Chernobyl, and the Fukushima disaster.
Even though these concerns might be overly-alarmist, a lot of Canadians seem to be feel the same way. According to a 2012 Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) poll, just 37 percent of Canadians agree with nuclear power in general, yet we are the number two producer of uranium in the world.
But unless you are in Saskatchewan where the world’s biggest uranium mine is located, there’s probably not much to worry about for the moment—as there aren’t many uranium mines in the rest of Canada. But that may change as other provinces could have mines of their own on the horizon: Newfoundland ended their moratorium on uranium mining in 2011, and now Quebec is having a battle of its own over allowing uranium mining, despite having the lowest opinion of any province about nuclear power at 12 percent according to that CNA poll.
The reason Quebec is thinking about uranium can be traced back to when Liberal Premier Jean Charest was in power, and he promised to boost mining in north Quebec to provide some much needed moolah for the have-not province. The program was called ‘Plan Nord,’ and the government was quickly bombarded with requests from mining companies to do exploration—including about 20 requests from uranium mining companies. One of these companies, Strateco, got approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in 2012 for a 312 square kilometer project near Sept-Îles in northern Quebec, but when they made their application to begin exploration, the government got cold feet. The Parti Québécois government at the time called in their environmental watchdog called BAPE—that’s the Bureau d’Audiences Publiques sur l’Environnement, and not the Japanese clothing company obsessed with camo—to look into uranium mining for potential environmental impact and social acceptability before agreeing to permit Strateco’s ‘Matoush Project.’
Meanwhile, the Cree people—whose territory is closest to Strateco’s site—want nothing to do with uranium. According to this 2013 Leger Marketing poll, 76 percent of them are against it and 55 percent of non-Cree northern Quebecers are against it too.
I couldn’t get in touch with Cree leader Mathew Coon Come because, apparently, it’s goose hunting season, but he told the Financial Post: “We don’t want uranium. [Strateco has] not answered the environmental questions. And I think we’ve come to a point where we’re saying ‘Just scrap it. We don’t need it.’”
The Cree leader was also unhappy when BAPE did not release their full first report in English. “We were troubled to learn that the complete document was made available on Wednesday only in French, when it is well known that a large proportion of the Cree population does not speak that language. The English summary document that has been made available is brief and incomplete,” said Coon Come to Mining Weekly.
BAPE’s preliminary study concluded that uranium mining causes an increased risk of lung cancer in males, and holds “suspected” risks for leukemia and complications during pregnancy.
Ugo Lapointeof the mine-watch organization Quebec Meilleure Mine, said his group believes these risks should be enough to convince Quebec to continue its moratorium; even without concluding on the risks related to accidents like a radioactive spill, fire, or nuclear waste.
“The best place to keep uranium is in the ground, because as soon as you take it out, it becomes radioactive,” said Dr. Michel DuGuay of the Université de Laval à Québec who is also in the no-uranium camp. He explained that when uranium is released, you also find things like thorium, radium, polonium, selenium, and radon—the last of this radioactive bunch has been linked to 16 percent of lung cancers in Canada.
Strateco CEO Guy Hébert argues that the suspicions about radon contamination in uranium mines are overblown; especially in new well-ventilated mines like the one he is planning to build in northern Quebec. “[Radon] exposure is so, so limited,” he said, adding that in the mine, risks are lower “than someone watching hockey [and] drinking beer in [their] basement,” presumably alluding to the low level of radiation your idiot box blasts into you on a daily basis.
Hébert and Strateco aren’t going to wait to hear what BAPE concludes after their yearlong study. They have sued the Quebec government for holding up the project, which has allegedly cost its investors $125 million, so far. “If the government says ‘no we will keep the moratorium,’ it’s OK. You cannot go against a final decision. But that means our shareholders are entitled to $125 million and maybe damages,” said Hébert. “I think we are entitled because we acted following the rules.”
If the Strateco Matoush Project does go through, Hébert told the Globe and Mail he estimates it could produce 30 million pounds of some of the highest-grade uranium in the world, and infuse $800-million into the province over 10 years. Tack on 180 jobs for the Cree during the four-year exploration phase—and potentially twice that if a mine is approved—and that could be enticing for a Quebec Liberal government who has promised a budget surplus in 2015-2016 and may want to finish ‘Plan Nord’ where they left off.
Income could also spread across Quebec as land under more than 300 municipalities have been pegged for having uranium, according to a map from Quebec Sans Uranium that was also shared by Quebec Meilleure Mine. But that’s only if anyone is buying uranium as the price is still 50% lower than it was pre-Fukushima.
On May 20, BAPE will be holding public consultations across Quebec before coming up with a final recommendation a year from now. If you are living in Quebec, you might want to get educated and have your voice heard. @joelbalsam