Burden of Proof

How citizens’ questions shut down uranium enrichment in Port Hope

An Interview with John Miller, Families Against Radiation Exposure

February 2007

Illustration by Aimee van Drimmelen

Port Hope, Ontario, has long been at the nucleus of uranium refining in Canada. In 2003, Cameco, the world’s largest publicly traded uranium company, proposed an expansion of its existing uranium refinery to begin producing enriched uranium—-a process that increases both the risk of a criticality accident and the environmental risk.

Questions about these risks led citizens of Port Hope to form Families Against Radiation Exposure (FARE) in May, 2004. FARE launched a successful 16-month campaign against the plans of Cameco Corporation to introduce enriched uranium to Port Hope. Faced with unprecedented scrutiny and questions it could not or would not answer, Cameco withdrew its application.

Briarpatch’s Tyler McCreary and Ken Sailor caught up with FARE President John Miller to discuss the role that ordinary citizens played in the process.

“It shouldn’t be our job to prove that this is dangerous; it should be their job to prove that it is safe.”

Briarpatch: Can you tell us a little about FARE?

John Miller: Families Against Radiation Exposure is a citizens’ group. We emerged in 2004 around a proposal by Cameco to blend enriched uranium. People got alarmed about that. They didn’t know enough about it, so our group formed to provide people with an independent source of information, and also to ask some questions.

What sorts of questions?

Cameco had to go through an environmental assessment as part of the process. They produced a document out of that assessment, and we studied it. We discovered that we didn’t need a lot of nuclear expertise to ask good questions. We just said “How do you know this is safe? What scientific evidence is there that this is safe?”

And from there, the questions piled up. We eventually produced 623 questions about their environmental assessment and sent them off to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and to Cameco. Their first reaction was to ignore us. So we simplified the questions and went public with them in the community.

What response did you get?

The first time we asked the consultants, who had allegedly studied the whole environmental assessment that Cameco had produced, they just dismissed our questions as “beyond the scope of the assessment.” These were basic questions like: how do we know the “permissible” level of uranium in the air is safe?

“That’s beyond the scope of our study,” they’d say.

So people just started to get mad, and kept challenging them to answer the question. Over the course of about a year and a quarter we turned those same consultants right around. In the end, the consultants were asking exactly the same questions we were!

That’s when Cameco pulled the plug on the uranium enrichment plant. They didn’t want to answer the questions.

In trying to address questions of public health, has FARE been given any sort of intervenor status or support to conduct research?

None—-and that’s a problem. There has to be a higher level of scrutiny. It shouldn’t be our job to prove that something is dangerous; it should be their job to prove that it is safe. Government puts the burden on citizens, when it should be on the regulator.

We’re up against a regulatory body that calls itself the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, but it doesn’t have the resources to determine whether something is safe. There are no health experts in the CNSC. They don’t have a health department. What they are is a “regulator of risk.” They determine what constitutes an “acceptable risk”—-and they generally take the company’s word for whether something is going to be safe or not.

But they don’t live in the community they regulate. They hardly ever visit it. They’re not accountable. And in fact, half of CNSC’s budget comes from the nuclear industry itself. So they’ve got an enormous conflict of interest: if they turn down somebody’s license, that means they’re not going to get paid.

How does the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission determine what level of risk is “acceptable”?

CNSC operates by what it calls the ALARA principle. ALARA is an acronym for As Low As Reasonably Achievable. That means that to determine “safe” levels of uranium emission, the CNSC negotiates with companies an economically feasible level of safety.

But what about the precautionary principle? Let’s assume, instead of asking what’s affordable, that something’s not safe until it’s proven safe. Safety should be based on science, not on the company’s profit picture.

What is Cameco’s profile in the community?

Cameco presents itself as a good corporate citizen. There are “Cameco rooms” in the local theatre; there’s a “Cameco cancer walk”—-I always thought that was really interesting! Anybody who wants a donation goes to Cameco, and Cameco usually complies.

Port Hope is a company town of about 15,000 people. Cameco used to have over 1,000 employees in Port Hope, but now they are down to 300. (Interestingly enough, two-thirds of those employees don’t live in Port Hope.) But because Cameco occupies a lot of land on our harbour, they pay a lot of taxes: about a million dollars a year. They often use that as a reason they should be above scrutiny.

But what if Cameco wasn’t there? What could we do with that waterfront? We hired a planner to study that question for us, and he determined that Port Hope would be miles ahead without them. We haven’t called for Cameco to leave. But if they’re going to stay, if they’re going to occupy the prime spot in town, they had better reduce their emissions, and they had better conduct health studies, and they had better ensure proper security because they’re bringing potential danger to the community.

Are there concerns about cancer in Port Hope?

We all have experience with friends who have developed cancer or whose kids have developed cancer. There seems to be a lot of cancer in the community, but nobody knows for sure. And every time we raise the question, everybody digs in their heels. CNSC digs in their heels. Cameco digs in their heels. That makes us suspicious.

If they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they help fund a $25,000 health study that would at least give us an indication of whether we have a problem? If we don’t have a problem, great: I’d be the happiest person in the world. But we don’t know.

Do you have any evidence of increased exposure to radiation in Port Hope?

We know what they spew out. It’s about 120 kilograms per year of fine uranium dust. We don’t know where it goes, but we suspect that some of it is ingested. It could cause cancer. It could kill. But until we do health studies and look inside people’s bodies, we won�t know.

FARE was successful in having Port Hope taken off the list of potential sites for a new enriched uranium blending facility.

Do you know where they’re thinking of putting that plant now?

They may try again in Port Hope, but there’s some evidence that they want a plant like that in northern Saskatchewan, as part of the Saskatchewan government’s plans to develop the nuclear industry. So that’s something that people in Saskatchewan should investigate.

Right now, Canadians have a lot of leverage in stopping uranium development, because Canada has not yet moved into enriched uranium fuel for CANDU reactors. But that’s the direction the industry is going.

Can you talk about the impact of FARE’s work on the broader community?

As badly as I feel about how this issue has divided our community, I think the community is going to come out of it stronger. We’ve had very recent evidence that our views are shared now by a majority of the population. Some of our demands for emission reductions and health testing are now being echoed by people who aren’t our members. These are just common-sense demands from the community. If people feel empowered to speak up on issues, I think we have a right to feel very happy about the kind of community we live in.

Of course, we’ve all been harassed and heckled and received abusive phone calls.

What do people say?

The charge they keep throwing at us is, “You’re a group with a hidden agenda.”

Really? What’s my hidden agenda? To spend four nights a week at meetings? To deprive my family of my presence? I don’t want to run for politics; I’m not a politician. I’ve already got a full-time job. And now I’ve got a part-time one, too, for which I’m not paid.

We don’t have a hidden agenda; we have a very public agenda. We want what’s best for everybody in town. And we’ve shown that ordinary citizens still matter and they can change things. People saw an important issue and they did something about it. And that’s what being a citizen is all about. Being a citizen isn’t about staying home and watching TV, even though some nights we’d rather do just that. It’s about standing up for your community and having some goal bigger than yourself.

Listen to the entire conversation at www.makingthelinksradio.ca.

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