You are here

A Nuclear Waste Ban: Can We Take The Bull By The Horns?


The FSIN taking $1,000,000 from the industry-based Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has put nuclear waste back in the news. And apparently the Métis Nation has also taken hundreds of thousands of NWMO money. What does it mean that both large Aboriginal organizations have gone this far? Do they seriously believe that an industry-funded “information” campaign can create informed consent about a nuclear dump in Saskatchewan?

Relying on industry is fraught with dangers to Aboriginal self-determination and to our larger democracy. So what are people who don’t want to see Saskatchewan become a nuclear dump to do? Are we to close our eyes to the realities facing Métis and First Nations communities in the north? Are we to sidestep the role that the lack of economic opportunities in the north is playing in the nuclear waste controversy? Are we to oppose a nuclear dump while ignoring the role of the powerful uranium industry in the north?


It's not possible to do principled, effective educational work for a nuclear waste ban without reference to uranium mining. The two, after all, are inextricably connected; the yellowcake that goes out of northern mines, to be refined and converted into fuel-bundles by Cameco in Ontario, is then used in Candu reactors where it becomes spent fuel - the nuclear waste that the NWMO wants to dump in the north. By 2005 Canada accumulated 40,000 tonnes of nuclear wastes from these uranium-fueled Candus. For every year supply of uranium for one nuclear plant another 2,500 tonnes of nuclear waste is created.

It is sometimes difficult to make these links because uranium mining remains "the elephant in the room”; always there but rarely seriously discussed. And the “Uranium Curtain” which keeps us largely in the dark about uranium mining is thick and well funded. But last years’ success in stopping nuclear power plants along the North Saskatchewan River didn’t occur in a vacuum. The recommendation that we "go nuclear" actually came from the industry-based Uranium Development Partnership (UDP), as a way to add-value to the uranium industry. So did the recommendation that we take nuclear wastes. And the Coalition to bring a non-nuclear, pro-renewable energy perspective to the UDP’s public consultations was always premised on creating alternatives to this expansion of the uranium industry. This holistic approach strengthened the understanding that lay behind the opposition to nuclear power and support of renewables in the face of such heavy-handed pro-nuclear promotion.


Bringing nuclear wastes here has always been a corporate strategy. Cameco, a uranium company, co-owns Bruce Power, a nuclear power company which buys uranium from its corporate partner. Bruce Power has accumulated 40% of the nuclear wastes in Canada and is a financial backer of the NWMO. The interlocked companies want to turn the nuclear waste stream into a lucrative business and they apparently favour northern Saskatchewan for this. Cameco along with the AECL, which builds Candu reactors, has proposed this since the 1990s. The nuclear industry is now fully integrated from uranium mining and refining to nuclear power and its wastes. Areva, the other main uranium company in the north, is involved in nuclear waste reprocessing at its La Hague plant in France. And we must remain wary of the dangers of a nuclear dump as a step towards reprocessing spent fuel for plutonium, and all the proliferation risks this would present.

The Ontario communities, Ignace and Ear Falls, recently had municipal elections that defeated politicians, who were dealing with the NWMO, and so Saskatchewan's north could become a more likely target for a nuclear dump. All the promotional disinformation about uranium mining’s benefits to indigenous people is being built upon to convince northern communities they should "host" a nuclear dump. And, as occurred with uranium mine expansion, there’s lots of monetary bribery undercutting informed consent (duty to consult). Meanwhile uranium mining has not altered the relative economic position of the north; it remains the second poorest region in Canada. The wealth goes out, a clear neo-colonial process. And a similar thing would happen with an even more capital-intensive nuclear dump.


Northern people working in uranium mines shouldn’t be criticized; they are just trying to make a living. But alternative employment must be proposed; after all “employment” is the carrot being used to promote a nuclear dump. People everywhere are exploring shutting down coal mines and plants due to global warming, and finding new lines of sustainable work. There is also a move to shut down Quebec asbestos mines because asbestos causes untold lung cancer deaths. The legacy of cancer-causing uranium mining, its radioactive tailings, the future burden from nuclear wastes, and the links to weapons, makes the nuclear industry much more devastating.

Even Sask Party Minister Boyd admits there’s not much grass-roots support for a nuclear waste dump here. The United Church is calling for a nuclear waste ban, and the NDP opposition is officially on record as opposing a nuclear dump. And the Coalition for Clean Green Saskatchewan is beginning a community-information campaign, along any prospective nuclear waste transportation routes, to support a nuclear waste ban. Support for such a ban will come from many people who don't yet know that much about the corporate connections along the nuclear fuel system. Understandably they just don’t want high-level radioactive wastes coming through their community on the way north. But a credible campaign won't be able to side-step these connections; otherwise it would end up looking like a Not-In-My-Back-Yard or NIMBY campaign, which it isn’t.


A NIMBY campaign could even backfire since the bulk of the uranium used in the Candus that create nuclear waste comes from here. The campaign therefore has to be linked to changing energy policy; “greening the grid” and phasing out nuclear power, which will greatly reduce the nuclear wastes burdening our future kin. And it must be clear that we are not obliged to take these wastes; the jurisdictions that build nuclear plants must be held responsible for their own wastes. Quebec presently bans importing nuclear wastes but, having its own nuclear power plants, it can’t really ban storage. Nor can Ontario, with a government that still flirts with expanding nuclear power without any waste plan! However, with no nuclear plants, Manitoba can and does ban storing nuclear wastes. We will need a Saskatchewan ban on importing, transporting and storing of nuclear wastes.

Saskatchewan exported uranium for weapons until the end of the 1960s, and since then for nuclear plants that create the bulk of nuclear wastes. We have a legacy that makes work here for a non-nuclear society more complex and challenging. But there’s less room for double standards; it’s starting to look hypocritical to want uranium mines but not nuclear power plants; to export uranium but not want to think about nuclear wastes, or the weapons connection, etc. And human history is ripe with similar examples of how amoral silence turns into immoral complicity. Three times Saskatchewan people have stopped the nuclear lobby from building nuclear plants, while being upfront about the links along the nuclear fuel system. It’s also possible to win a nuclear waste ban, while being upfront about these links and this will help build more support for a non-nuclear, renewable energy policy. We can't avoid our history and our complicity. Things are beginning to catch up with us and we must now, ever so carefully, take the bull by the horns.

Next time I’ll discuss why the Métis Council of Canada (MCC) and Assembly of First Nations (AFN) are also addressing the whole nuclear fuel system.