Make sure to bring some lead underwear. That was the recommendation from a friend of mine when he heard I was going to northern Saskatchewan to tour one of the world’s largest uranium mines – Cameco’s MacArthur/Key Lake operations. These mines supply the uranium for much of North America’s nuclear power plants.
The reason for the visit was because I sit on the Community of Interest Advisory Panel for the Mining Association of Canada. This panel, comprised of an eclectic group of stakeholders and rights-holders from across Canada, representing First Nations, Inuit, Métis, labour unions, environmental and faith groups, institutional investors, etc., meets a few times a year to provide advice and feedback to the Mining Association and its member companies. These visits provide an opportunity to ground discussions in the context of a working mine, the communities it impacts, and the surrounding environment.
I had my assumptions of what uranium mining would be like. It is hard not to conjure discomforting images of Fukushima or Chernobyl, or the problematic management practices at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plat. Closer to home, I remember tragic stories of how the uranium was mined for the Manhattan Project, the research program that eventually led to the development of the atomic bomb. The radioactive ore for the Manhattan Project came from a mine near Deline, a Dene First Nation community on the shores of Great Bear Lake in the North West Territories. A generation of Deline men died from radiation poisoning, earning the community the title of “the village of widows.” Needless to say, it was difficult to visit this mine with an open mind.
Mercifully, the days of mining without any environmental, health and safety measures are over. Underground ventilation has improved. Super-cooled rock freezes groundwater that may flood the mineshafts. Trucks and equipment close to radioactive ore can be remotely operated. Miners wear specialized safety equipment and radiation monitors. As proof of these improvements, Cameco’s MacArthur/Key Lake operation has received a national award for safest metal mine in Canada three times in the last six years.
As I was quickly informed by our host, the nuclear industry is the most heavily regulated sector in the country. The risks can be managed. We were told the workers down in the mines are subject to less radiation than the background radiation that most folks experience in the daily lives – be it radon gas leaking into their basements, dental x-rays, or air travel.
Cameco also prides itself in the benefits it shares with local indigenous communities. It is one of the biggest employers of indigenous people in the country and has a number of impact and benefit agreements with local First Nations and Métis communities that obliges the company to, among other things, train and hire local folks from these towns.
I’ve visited gold, copper, nickel, coal and oilsands mines across the country and it is clear that Cameco does better than many of the major mining companies. Granted, it is far from being a controversy-free mine.
So the question that interests me most is this: why does Cameco bother to do better than other mines in Canada? Why do they hire more indigenous folks? Why do they spend so much money on safety equipment and emergency response teams? Sure, part of the answer is that it is the right thing to do. But the other part is that life will be much more difficult for them if they were not continually trying to raise the bar. Government regulations oblige them to be better than other metal mines. Local communities, environmental groups, labour unions, and shareholders alike all take uranium mining companies like Cameco to task. Whether they admit as much or not, it takes a village to raise up a company like Cameco, to the point where it is an industry leader. I’m curious if other mines, who do not mine radioactive ore, would be able to improve their safety record if they faced similar levels of public scrutiny.
As any of the long-suffering tour leaders at Cameco know, perception of risk is critically
important. They encounter their fair share of city slickers from the south with oversized suppositions of the dangers of uranium mining. Just to underscore this point, remember the Joker’s origin story in Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989? It’s the scene where the he falls into a vat of green acid at the Axis Chemicals plant. This was immediately what came to my mind when our tour passed through these enormous tanks of electric-green chemicals. It was one of the many steps where the uranium ore is purified.
Is this comparison silly? Yes. Immature? Perhaps. But however seemingly ill-informed media, environmental advocates, or community members may be, Cameco—and other mining companies for that matter—must find a way to positively engage their communities of interest and seek to raise their bar closer to the expectations of their critics. Critics, in turn, need to don their lead underwear, and engage Cameco as well.
If the nuclear power industry and uranium miners like Cameco would like to have a place in a decarbonized future (and they very much would like this), they will need to ramp up their public engagement and keep on improving their performance. Flying the Mining Association’s Community of Interest Advisory Panel up to their operations and sharing with us their achievements goes a long way. I’m looking forward to seeing them carry on raising the bar.