Geiger counters, screaming fans, and a question-mark-shaped cloud on the horizon
Stewart Steinhauer reflects on his own brush with uranium mining and the resurgence of nuclear power at the crest of Hubbert’s Peak.
IN 1976, AS A YOUNG MAN TRYING to make a living by market gardening on reserve in the north Okanagan, I went north for the winter months to work underground at Echo Bay (formerly Eldorado) Mines at Port Radium. All of the uranium had been mined by 1960, but the mine had just been drained and reopened to go after the silver deposits.
I got an entry-level job as a deckman, part of the hoistman/cagetender/deckman trio who “skipped muck”—-the process of bringing the ore from underground to surface. It wasn’t long before the cagetender went AWOL, and I was promoted to riding the cage up and down the mineshaft—-still skipping muck, but now also transferring men and equipment from surface to underground and, hopefully, back up again.
Toward the end of the winter, a university student studying engineering or some such thing came underground for a couple of weeks to study the mine’s ventilation system. On his last shift, as we rode up the 800 feet from the bottom of the mine shaft to the surface, he suddenly turned to me with a funny look on his face and said: “Did you know that this mine shaft is highly radioactive?” I had heard of radioactivity, but, honestly, I didn’t know what “radioactive” meant. I just stared dumbly at him. He said, “Look,” and flipped a switch on a small metal box he was carrying. It immediately started clicking and a gauge on the metal box swung wildly. He shut if off and looked at me again for a moment. I stared impassively back; his words and his clicking metal box didn’t really mean anything to me.
“The ventilation system is operating backwards,” he said. “Air is being pulled in the outflow raises, and is exhausting up this shaft.”
As we reached the surface, I grabbed the bell cord and ripped off a two-and-a-three signal to the hoistman to let him know we were parking, and opened the cage door. As that engineering student got out of the cage, he told me that this was the mine that produced the uranium to build The Bomb.
IN 2005, I CAME ACROSS A NEWS ARTICLE about the Dene workers who carried out the radioactive ore from that mine back when it was being mined for uranium in the 1940s and 50s. The news article talked about cancer, death and destruction—-for Dene workers and for Japanese civilians. The student with the clicking box had been right: ore from Eldorado was used in the Manhattan Project, and in the making of Little Boy and Fat Man (the bombs that flattened Nagasaki and Hiroshima).
I once saw a bumper sticker that read: Just one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. It reminded me of another night in the mine, later that winter. The shift boss had ordered me to go down to the bottom and check on the pumps. The 800-foot level wasn’t the actual bottom; it was just as far down as the company wanted to drain the mine, located under Great Bear Lake and steadily filling with water through hundreds of thousands of fissures. A pumping station had been built a quarter mile from the shaft, and the pumps had to be visually inspected every so many hours.
I got out of the cage at 800 and started to walk towards the pumping station. Partway along the narrow tunnel a gigantic exhaust fan was mounted, and it always gave off a particularly nasty scream: I’d been there before, and always found it very disturbing to walk past that screaming fan. I passed it quickly and checked the pumps, then made my way back. But as I approached the vent fan in the tunnel for the second time that night, I could hear human voices screaming, and with each step, the volume and intensity of the screaming increased: I was sure I was hearing the voices of those people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima as Little Boy and Fat Man did their thing, the terrible thing they were designed to do, releasing the radiance of a thousand suns all at once. Nuclear energy. As I rode the cage up towards surface, the intensity of that moment gradually passed away, and I went on with my work.
Thirty years later, when I look back to that time, I recognize that my whole life has been one constant blur of psychic numbness. Through the collective efforts and will of my extended family, elders, and mentors, I have been able to push back the edges of that numbness, at least enough to see, in a brief gap of clarity on the distant horizon, a question taking shape—-a question-mark-shaped cloud that will someday soon grow to fill the entire sky above our heads:
We humans, all of us, need to ask ourselves: in the midst of accelerating global warming, diminishing oil reserves, skyrocketing cancer rates, disappearing forests, mass-extinctions, and all the rest, how can we possibly survive if we stay on the path we’re on?
My research indicates that if we combine the power we can harness from solar, wind, wave, biomass, biofuels, geothermal, and whatever other renewable sources we invent, we still won’t be able to meet the industrialized world’s current power usage. As we humans begin our terrifying toboggan slide down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak (the point at which the easy half of the world’s oil has been pumped, after which production inevitably begins to fall off), the power-mad energy gang’s deranged fantasy of winning the War On Terror by forcing the rest of the world to become just like the industrialized world is so illogical as to be almost impossible to pass comment on. The math just doesn’t work, unless this is an unconscious suicide fantasy that includes first eliminating the rest of the world, and then itself.
Nuclear energy is the ultimate manifestation of that suicide fantasy. From Hiroshima to Chernobyl, to depleted uranium weapons and the “Gulf War Syndrome,” the nuclear power industry has been exposed for the monster it is. And for its proponents, the Great White North is seen as the perfect dumping grounds for nuclear waste; governments and industry are trying to encourage reserve-bound Indigenous populations to accept nuclear and other toxic waste as an “economic development strategy.” Given the barriers posed by Canada’s Indian Act to any type of economic activity, some Indian Act Chiefs may chose to sign on to nuclear waste dump deals. From a pragmatic point of view, how could it make the local situation worse? “Clean and safe,” we’re told again and again. But imagine if it were announced that only the highest-value residential real estate would be used as the dumping sites. How many enthusiastic supporters would we have for nuclear power then? Let me see a nuclear power advocate display his sincerity about the clean-and-safe claims by accepting nuclear waste in his own personal backyard.
POWERING OUR CHILDRENï¿½S FUTURE will require at least two things: first, re-imagining the place of humanity in Mother Earth’s “family,” and second, peacefully deconstructing the current global political economy and successfully replacing it with a new global political economy based in an ecologically logical relationship with our great mother. Just like the mineshaftï¿½s ventilation system that night, this whole system is operating backwards. If you listen carefully, you can hear that little metal box clicking like mad.
If there is to be a future for humanity, we’ll have to look no further than beneath our own feet. Right where I stand today, my ancestors lived by an indefinitely sustainable whole-life system. I believe that the possibility of such a system for all of humanity continues to exist, even though the forces of modernity suppress this possibility. Notions of free markets, profits, privilege, and the dominance of humanity over Mother Earth will have to go if we are to survive. To understand our conflicts over power in the material world, we need to look inside ourselves, into the nonmaterial world, for the original spark.
That’s why I go back, again and again, to my extended family’s sweatlodge. I invite you to come in. Here, in the darkness of the sweatlodge, let’s put our voices together and sing a new pathway to power into being.
Stewart Steinhauer lives and works at Saddle Lake First Nation, where he carves stone for money, and studies the relationship between racism, colonialism and capitalism for fun.
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