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Why Are We So Oblivious About The Hazards of Uranium?

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Uranium is a water soluble, toxic heavy metal that emits radiation until it stabilizes into lead in 4.5 billion years. One of its many carcinogenic byproducts is radon gas, the world's second cause of lung cancer. No wonder jurisdictions concerned about environmental health want to keep it from being spread into watersheds, food chains and human bodies.

Many places "leave it in the ground." B.C.'s uranium moratorium from 1977 was recently reaffirmed. Nova Scotia has had a ban since 1985, and Labrador just imposed one. Twenty Ontario municipalities including Ottawa have called for a ban. Virginia has had a ban since 1983, the Colorado Medical Association is calling for one, and a U.S. federal authority has proposed a ban throughout the complete Grand Canyon watershed.

Why are we so oblivious to this? Is it because the Blakeney NDP government promised "untold wealth" from mining high-grade uranium as public enterprise? Because Cameco's tax-deductible donations to health, education and cultural groups make us feel involved? Because uranium mining occurs far away from our towns and cities, near sparsely populated First Nations and Métis communities!

Perhaps we can get perspective from Nova Scotia's 1982 Inquiry. In its Final Report Judge McCleave said "One could live near uranium, or one of the elements in its cycle, and not immediately recognize the hazards...the radiation from such sources has no taste, no sound, no form by which it can be see, and no odour. Its damages can be devastating. This lack of taste, noise, sight and smell make it a formidable enemy indeed" (p. 17) Elsewhere he wrote, "The most common argument against the development of uranium holdings was the long-term management of the waste or tailings...since the problem raised is less than fifty years and the decay in the tailings is to last for tens of thousands of years, there is no absolute answer" (p. 27).

The public outcry that led to McCleave's inquiry and the Nova Scotia moratorium was triggered by uranium exploration. The "free entry" of mining companies to stake on cottage, farm and Aboriginal land during the uranium bull market in 2008 also sparked the coalition to ban uranium exploration in the Ottawa Valley, as well as New Brunswick protests leading to changes to the Clean Water Act to protect drinking water sources from uranium contamination.

Here it's "out of sight-out of mind." The 1982 Charter of Rights and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples require "prior, informed consent" for exploration to occur where Aboriginal rights are involved. But uranium mining was initiated here in the secrecy of the nuclear arms race. Aboriginal rights were then summarily ruled out of the 1978 Cluff Lake Inquiry, making Saskatchewan more appealing to uranium multinationals than uranium-rich Australia, where Aboriginal rights were considered.

It might have been different, for a moratorium was recommended at the Saskatchewan NDP's 1976 convention, but proponents were out-maneuvered by Blakeney's Ministers who were already negotiating uranium exports. With loyal pronuclear Commissioners, the Cluff Lake Inquiry was a safe "compromise" which ruled out the forthright investigation that led to Nova Scotia‚s moratorium.

The imperative of sustainability requires that we look back with open eyes and an open heart, learn where things went wrong, and start anew. There is an opportunity to do this NOW. Let's not miss it.