Mark Dowie’s article on the hazards of the nuclear industry, published in the March-April 2009 issue of Resurgence magazine, was reprinted last week, apparently with permission, on a web site in Sri Lanka. The version of the article published by the magazine is not available on its own website.
In his investigation of the claims and controversies surrounding the industry, titled “Nuclear Nightmare” in the magazine and “Makings of a Nuclear Nightmare” in the text from Sri Lanka, Mr. Dowie repeats familiar arguments by industrial proponents. Developers trumpet the notion that the industry supposedly does not contribute carbon pollution to the atmosphere, which means that nuclear is a clean energy source that does not contribute to global climate change.
Dowie carefully rebuts these industry claims by examining the overall environmental impact of the nuclear cycle: he cites problems posed by uranium mining and processing, the hazards and costs of constructing the massive nuclear power plants, and the long-term dangers posed by the nuclear wastes.
He illustrates his points, in part, by discussing plans for uranium mining and processing in Nunavut and their potential impacts on the Inuit. When the price of nuclear fuel skyrocketed a few years ago, hundreds of uranium claims were staked in Nunavut. By April 2008, there were 28 mining exploration teams—engineers, geologists, and Inuit support staff members—prospecting for possible mine sites in the territory.
One of Dowie’s major arguments is to refute the claim that the nuclear industry is nearly free of a carbon footprint. In Nunavut, one proposed mining operation will require the construction of a port at Baker Lake, which has access into Hudson Bay, plus a 70 mile paved road into the interior to a mine site. Equipment and fuel supplies for the operations will be sent by railroad to Churchill, barged up the bay 1,000 km to Baker Lake, then trucked into the mine site itself. All supplies and materials will be hauled in by rail, boat, and truck. All electricity for the mine and the processing plant will be supplied by diesel generators, and of course the diesel will be trucked in.
The uranium ore that is extracted will be milled and refined into uranium oxide, called yellowcake, near the mine. It will be trucked back to Baker Lake, shipped south to the railhead at Churchill, and sent south to Ontario where it will be further shipped to nuclear facilities around the world. During the winter, when the bay is frozen, the yellowcake will be shipped by air to Toronto, and on to markets.
Besides the massive amounts of carbon-producing diesel fuel involved in all of these operations, the entire mining, processing, and shipping of the uranium poses significant environmental dangers to the Inuit people, many of whom apparently are eager for the jobs the development will open up. An accident on the open bay, perhaps during a storm, could spill yellowcake uranium into the water and affect the ecology of the bay, and the lives of the Inuit living near it, for thousands of years. Spills inland could have a similar, devastating, effect on the local people and fauna.
The author interviewed Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and a prominent nominee for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, about the subject. He found Ms. Watt-Cloutier reluctant, at first, to speak out against the uranium industry, despite the fact that the Inuit Circumpolar Conference officially opposes nuclear developments in the polar regions. It is a sensitive subject in Nunavut because of the potential for generating jobs.
However, she later expressed her thoughts to Mr. Dowie, though still cautiously. “Mining is the easy way out. And we’re moving too quickly to embrace it,” she said. She told him the development of uranium mining could harm the efforts of the Inuit to rebuild their culture. As always, her observations were very thoughtful.
“We need to step back and ask ourselves what kind of society we are trying to create here. Will we lose awareness of how sacred the land is, and our connection to it? Do we abandon or rebuild institutions we have relied on for generations? Or are we just going to allow ourselves to become dependent on new industries, substances and systems?”
Her thoughts reflect the perceptions of people around the world who treasure their connections to the earth, and to the peace that their traditions bring to them. “Do we want to lose the wise culture we have relied on for generations,” she asked Mr. Bowie rhetorically?