Harper and Modi, the Nuclear Prime Ministers
On the first day of his state visit to Canada last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a deal with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa to confirm the export of 3,220 tonnes of uranium from northern Saskatchewan to India, a country that has never signed the United Nations Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That very day in Quebec City, Indigenous activists from all over the world working to end uranium mining were meeting with allies at the World Uranium Symposium. The symposium brought together 200 activists and organisers, physicians, environmentalists, and researchers from the natural and social sciences, all working with the intent to dismantle the nuclear industry and the huge costs associated with it.
Polls suggest that Canadians oppose a nuclear deal with New Delhi, perhaps out of fear of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But Indigenous activists reminded the symposium that the most obvious costs were already being felt by their communities, even without the immediate threat of nuclear war. Uranium mining, nuclear power generation, and nuclear waste all result in grievous harm to ecological and human health that lasts for countless generations.
Additionally, the social cost is high, in the public subsidies necessary to keep nuclear energy viable, in the diversion of immense amounts of water resources for nuclear industry use, and in the high carbon costs associated with mining, transport, and storage of uranium, which makes nuclear power a dubious choice to fight climate change. The only tangible benefit to Harper’s deal with India is the profit distributed to shareholders of Cameco, the company responsible for uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan. Attendees from Saskatchewan’s Committee for Future Generations suggested that the complicity between government and industry has led to a health system that refuses to acknowledge problems related to the industry. Saskatchewan environmentalist and former MLA Peter Prebble recalled that when it started in 1952, uranium mining was established in the province to provide plutonium for the nuclear arms industry of the USA, and baseline health studies were never done.
While Harper appeases his constituents, the agreement must also be viewed in the context of longstanding grassroots resistance in India to nuclear plants, most famously at the plant in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, where the full repressive force of the Indian state has been deployed against anti-nuclear activists. Similar popular resistance occurs in Maharashtra at the Jaitapur plant. India’s civil nuclear programme has also been placed under scrutiny through the country’s mechanism for public interest litigation. Indian researchers attending the symposium affirmed that lax industry regulations are a concern, with companies preying on the poor. But Modi too is pandering to those who can extract profit in the short-term from the building and maintenance of nuclear power plants, rather than those who will deal with its long-term costs.
Prime Minister Harper stated that the moratorium on export of nuclear industry materials to India, which has been in effect ever since New Delhi used Canadian technology to develop a nuclear bomb in the 1970s, had exerted an unnecessary pall over the collaboration possible between the two countries. While diversion of uranium into military purposes remains a concern, the symposium did note that the most pressing threat for nuclear war remained in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons still held by the five traditional nuclear powers, the vast majority of them in the United States and Russia, and called for complete disarmament.
The symposium’s declaration also notes the dangers associated with uranium in all phases of its extraction and use – from mining, processing, civilian and military use, and storage. It calls for a worldwide ban on the exploration and use of uranium, especially in that such activities violate the rights of Indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent for activities on their territories. It insists that accountability for those harmed by uranium should last generations into the future while the mineral remains radioactive.
That this list of demands has to be stated at all may seem depressing. But there is hope. World experts such as Mycle Schneider reported to the symposium that the world’s generation of nuclear power is decreasing, dropping in 2012 by 12 per cent over the historic maximum in 2006. Additionally, the world’s largest builder of reactors, French state-controlled company AREVA, lost up to 88 per cent of its share value between 2008 and 2012. Germany is now creating more jobs in renewable energy than in nuclear and coal energy production.
The declaration also highlights that Quebec is now also home to some of the most promising work against uranium exploitation. The Cree Nation of Eeyou Itschee has stood in solidarity with its citizens in Mistissini who have resisted uranium exploration near their community, with Cree youth walking 850 km across Quebec last year to demonstrate their opposition to the plan. Their work has galvanised opposition around uranium mining, with the Inuit of Nunavik in northern Quebec, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador which includes 10 Indigenous nations across 43 communities, and over 300 municipalities in Quebec rejecting uranium mines.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan’s premier Brad Wall has welcomed the deal with India, stating that the 4,000 workers, including many Indigenous employees, stand to benefit from the deal.
The struggle against uranium is not over, not across Canada, not in India, nor elsewhere.
“…and in the high carbon costs associated with mining, transport, and storage of uranium, which makes nuclear power a dubious choice to fight climate change.”
Actually, the IPCC published its results of the lifecycle ghg emissions per energy source and found nuclear on par with wind and less than solar. [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cycle_greenhouse-gas_emissions_of_energy_sources]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cycle_greenhouse-gas_emissions_of_energy_sources[/url]
“Uranium mining, nuclear power generation, and nuclear waste all result in grievous harm to ecological and human health that lasts for countless generations.”
I keep hearing this, but there is no evidence to back it up. The reports out of the northern health region in northern Saskatchewan show cancer rates as lower than those in the rest of Saskatchewan. The one kind of cancer that has higher rates? Lung cancer. Why is that? More people smoke. It isn’t rocket science. I would plead with Briarpatch and their contributors to start doing their homework on this topic. Your anti-science stance is absurd.
“Attendees from Saskatchewan’s Committee for Future Generations suggested that the complicity between government and industry has led to a health system that refuses to acknowledge problems related to the industry.”
Again, where is the evidence of this? This is nothing but conjecture by a group of anti-uranium activists that have never let facts get in the way of a good story. You sound like a bunch of climate deniers when you spout stuff like this – no facts or substance to back up your wild claims. Shouldn’t Briarpatch be above this type of activist journalism and actually do some fact checking?
From Johnny Fairplay in Canada on Apr 20th, 2015 at 3:32pm
The association between lung cancer and uranium mining has been established for several decades. The US Public Health Service conducted the first studies in the 1960s, which incorporated smoking as a control factor. You can read a summary at the Centre for Disease Control’s website here: [url=http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/pgms/worknotify/uranium.html]http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/pgms/worknotify/uranium.html[/url]. Associations with other diseases known to be linked to mining were also present. Other ill effects may have been missed because the populations involved were too small.
Despite improved working conditions in the intervening decades, evidence released as recently as this year examining cohorts of uranium miners in France ([url=http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25410273]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25410273[/url]) and in Germany ([url=http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25267854]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25267854[/url]) confirm the links established fifty years ago. The French cohort was also noted to have an increased risk of cerebrovascular disease (strokes) which a study this year ([url=http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25807316]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25807316[/url]) hinted was independent of the usual risk factors for circulatory illnesses. Another 2015 study of the over 4000 uranium miners in Colorado ([url=http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25837305]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25837305[/url]) even suggests that the increased risk of lung cancer in this population has been historically underestimated due to an error in statistical modelling.
Given this science, we find it unwise to dismiss the increased incidence of lung cancer in northern Saskatchewan as simply due to smoking. Furthermore, the biological plausibility of chronic radiation exposure causing serious bodily harm would make us invoke the precautionary principle in limiting contact with uranium until definitive proof of its safety is determined. Along the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, gamma rays from uranium decay have the highest amount of energy delivered in them. In clinical medicine, it is standard practice to limit exposures to X-rays, which have about 100 times less energy than gamma rays. Long-term exposure to the relatively benign radiation from the sun, with its ultraviolet rays delivering less energy than even X-rays, is known to cause malignant skin damage, which has led to clinical guidelines encouraging sunscreen use. We are unconvinced that uranium can safely be exempt from even more stringent precautions.
We do recognise that the IPCC notes, as you say, that the carbon costs of nuclear fuel are on par with other non-fossil fuel sources. This consensus has emerged from much scientific debate, with some studies placing nuclear energy’s carbon costs as midway between fossil fuel and wind. Confounding factors exist in these assessments: how much of the uranium cycle has been taken into account – including the carbon-intensive enrichment process, the carbon sustainability of uranium sourcing into the future, and the mix of energy in any particular grid are examples. A summary of some of these nuances can be found here: [url=http://www.nature.com/climate/2008/0810/full/climate.2008.99.html]http://www.nature.com/climate/2008/0810/full/climate.2008.99.html[/url]. We do also note that these confounding factors may resolve as nuclear technology becomes more carbon-efficient.
Nonetheless, Symposium participant Mycle Schneider also suggests that even if we assume that carbon emissions of uranium are extraordinarily low, the investment of time required to set up a nuclear grid means that a high-carbon economy would persist for a while, when low-carbon alternatives are urgently needed to mitigate climate change. A shift to solar, as done in Germany for instance, can be established much more rapidly. While we are not endorsing solar as a solution, we are intrigued by the possibility of including this “cost-of-waiting” in carbon accounting of energy sources.
One final philosophical note: while we hold science in high esteem, we also recognise that the institutions and processes that result in scientific knowledge are dynamic systems subject to social pressures. The interests of government and industry shape the resources devoted to exploring questions. Although often limited in research capacity itself, civil society can influence this distribution of resources through activism and advocacy, but sometimes has to face powerful interests that benefit from ignorance or manipulation at large.
We have little reason to dismiss our contacts’ concerns in northern Saskatchewan that they find the transparency in public health officials lacking, and the health system woodenly unresponsive to their questions. For a long time, as governments and industry blew off the concerns of workers, people died because there was “no evidence” that asbestos can be lethal. Just because there is “no evidence” regarding a certain link does not necessarily mean that there are no real correlations. It could also mean that no one has bothered to pursue a question, or that everyone has been actively prevented from doing so. Contemporary science is rarely an eternal truth, but often a constant negotiation.
From Baijayanta Mukhopadhyay and Lori Hanson in Montreal and Saskatoon, Canada on Apr 24th, 2015 at 8:01am