Uranium exploration could open Pandora’s box, critics fear

Cash Minerals’ application to build a winter road along the Wind River Trail to further its search for uranium deposits concerns tourism and…

Cash Minerals’ application to build a winter road along the Wind River Trail to further its search for uranium deposits concerns tourism and environmental groups.

Most troubling is the very mineral the exploration company is searching for.

For the past four years, Cash Minerals has been hunting for the radioactive metal.

“I see no reason why they shouldn’t mine uranium,” said Yukon Chamber of Mines president John Witham.

“It’s being mined successfully and safely in Northern Saskatchewan.

“It’s like any other metal — I fail to see the differentiation between uranium, cobalt, copper or iron. They’re naturally occurring metals.”

But there is a difference, according to MiningWatch Canada national co-ordinator Joan Kuyek.

“Uranium is particularly awful because of the length of time that it lasts and the insidiousness of things like radon gas,” Kuyek said.

“You take out the uranium, which is the least radioactive of all the materials there, and put all of the rest of it, ground into a fine powder, into a tailing pond.

“It’s absolutely stupid.”

Mining uranium involves getting a small amount of the expensive metal out of a huge chunk of rock.

The problem is that in any body where there’s uranium you’re likely to find radium, polonium and various isotopes of lead — all of which are radioactive.

“One of the most serious for humans is an isotope of radium called radon gas,” said Kuyek.

“If you breath radon in, it lodges in you lungs and it causes enormous damage.”

Decommissioning a uranium mine means either putting up a dry cover or having to keep it covered with water.

Dry covers haven’t been holding up and the wet covers need to be kept consistently underwater, which is very difficult to maintain for 100,000 years.

“The Yukon should know better than anyone that tailings don’t hold, they leak,” said Kuyek.

“It just doesn’t make sense to be saddling the future with these kinds of responsibilities.”

“Until they can prove that they have some way to maintain tailing ponds and tailing facilities safely 100,000 years into the future, we’d advise people not to get engaged in uranium mining,” she added.

The potential dangers of uranium lie not only in the actual mining of the metal.

Uranium exploration can open up wells, or avenues for radon gas to reach the surface.

“The problem is that if you don’t have stronger regulations on exploration, these guys can cause a lot of damage,” said Kuyek.

“Strong reclamation guidelines should be put in place, if not a full moratorium.”

NDP Leader Todd Hardy agrees and has called for a moratorium on any uranium exploration or development activities in the Yukon.

Hardy tabled the motion at the Yukon legislature on November 19th.

Nova Scotia is the only province or territory to have a moratorium on uranium mining at this time.

The British Columbia government also imposed a moratorium, but it has since expired.

“It’s somewhat of a moot issue because there’s been no success in identifying uranium potential in Nova Scotia,” said  Greg Komaromi, assistant deputy minister of oil and gas and mineral deposits.

In the Yukon, uranium potential is no more than speculation, he said.

“Generally speaking, there is no concern about uranium when it is in concentrations of less than one per cent.

“There have been no concentrations yet reported in the Yukon that exceed that threshold where we’d need to think about extraordinary conditions.”

Rock formations in the Wernecke Mountains have led geologists to suspect that it may contain uranium deposits.

This, and the soaring price of uranium over the last year has enticed exploration firms, such as Cash Minerals, to set their sights on the area.

Besides uranium, they are also looking for other metals, such as copper and gold.

“Exploration firms are always hopeful that they’re going to find large deposits but that has not happened yet,” said Komaromi.

“We would look at imposing more specific terms of conditions on a licence should those one-per-cent conditions be found.”

Uranium mining is overseen by the federal Nuclear Safety Commission because it is considered a military material.

A full federal environmental assessment would have to be completed before any mining could be done.

These tighter regulations and review processes would make uranium mining in the Yukon difficult to justify economically, said Komaromi.

“To do something in North Yukon with uranium, just given its location, you’d have to have a pretty attractive proposition.”

An advanced uranium exploration project in the Northwest Territories was recently turned down by the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact review board.

The board’s decision was based on objections by the Lutselk’e Dene First Nation, said Kuyek.

After hearing about the environmental impacts it could have on their land they decided it was in conflict with their cultural and spiritual values.

“There’s never been a scientific study that didn’t say that uranium exploration and uranium mining aren’t dangerous to human health and the environment,” said Kuyek.

“The dispute is overall risk analysis.”

Canada is the world’s largest exporter of uranium ore with the bulk being mined in the Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewan.

“In Saskatchewan they’ve got uranium values that go up to 60 per cent of the ore body,” said Kuyek.

“That’s so dangerous that some of it has to be mined by robots.”

During the Second World War, radium was mined on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake, in a place that came to be known as Port Radium.

People now call that community the village of widows because most of the men have died from working at the mine.

Uranium is primarily used to make military weapons and for nuclear power.

Kuyek doubts whether uranium mining is even necessary, given its dangers.

“You can re-mine nuclear arsenals so any of the uranium we need could probably be recycled from nuclear weapons,” said Kuyek.

“Cameco Corp., the world’s largest uranium producer, is getting a lot from depleted uranium.”

“Another thing that has me concerned is that it’s Cash Minerals, who I tend to think of as being a pretty flighty operator,” added Kuyek.

Cash Minerals deals in mining exploration and has yet to develop a single mine.

“Big mining companies use them as a kind of farm team — if they find something good then the big companies buy it,” said Kuyek.

“In the long run they’re not going to be responsible for much.”

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