Nuclear? So last century

Peterborough Examiner: Opinion - Kathleen O'Hara - September 6, 2007

Call it an advantage of aging, but more and more I appreciate historical patterns. Having lived through the last half of one century and the first years of another, I have a greater sense of trends - past and present.

Take energy, for example. For me, coal power reeks of the dirty, unregulated 19th century, nuclear of the blindly scientific 20th, solar and wind of the oh- oh-we've- gone-too-far 21st.

Therefore, no matter how much the advocates of coal and nuclear energy try to dress up their products for the present, I can't accept them. They are just too old-fashioned.

This is why a controversy over uranium mining in the beautiful countryside near Sharbot Lake, 80 kilometres north of Kingston, appears so out-of-date and wrong. The idea of establishing such a mine in a land of wild blueberries, maple syrup, fishing lodges, boys' and girls' camps, and cottages conjures up bygone days when society didn't know better.

Having played a minor communications role in the 1992 decommissioning of the Elliot Lake uranium mines, which left behind 130 million tonnes of radioactive sludge, I thought we were done with all that. Now the prospect of using CO2 emitting trucks and heavy machinery to tear apart more pristine Ontario acres in search of a metal that is potentially toxic both locally and generally is, well, anachronistic.

In fact, things nuclear seem so out-of-sync with today's world that I had been ignoring the Sharbot Lake mine controversy, merely glancing at media reports of anti-mine demonstrations along Highway 7, the First Nations' 24/7 blockade of the mining company's access roads, the company's $77-million lawsuit, and its injunction request to stop the blockade.

But things are coming to a head. A judge has granted a contentious interim injunction, which the Natives plan to ignore even if it leads to violence. They say the solution needs to be political, since legal heavy-handedness has lead to nothing but violence in the past.

Although they have written to Premier McGuinty asking for a moratorium on the mining exploration to provide time for proper negotiations, the premier seems to be hiding behind federal/provincial jurisdictional uncertainties.

This debate over uranium mining in my backyard has proven impossible to avoid for a variety of reasons. A recent study casts doubt on the safety of living near a nuclear plant, due to higher rates of childhood leukemia; the cost to re-seal the site of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown will be more than $1 billion, and we've just marked the Aug. 6 and 8 anniversaries of the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - with bombs of Canadian uranium.

But it's not simply the mining issue that has been tugging at my consciousness and conscience in recent weeks. There is also a new awareness of the presence and needs of the Algonquin First Nations involved in the controversy - the Ardoch Algonquins and the Shabot Obaadjiwan.

Growing up in Kingston, I knew of the natives in Deseronto, who have made headlines recently with their protests, but not of those near Sharbot Lake. I wasn't alone. Several long-time Kingstonians I surveyed had "no idea they were up there" either.

Now, these low-profile neighbours want to reclaim some of their land based on an 1873 agreement between the British Crown and its native allies. They are also speaking out against the failure of Queen's Park to consult with locals - and notify them that a private company, Frontenac Ventures, had been given the exploration go- ahead.

These images of incommunicative government, an aggressive corporation, and an unsustainable industry also harken back to the past. Sure, China is clamouring for uranium, but, at this "inconvenient" time, wouldn't it be better to move together in the right direction - green?

Imagine the impact, if those who are clinging to the moribund and the unhealthy devoted their time, money, expertise, and enthusiasm to the technologies and needs of the 21st century.

Kathleen O'Hara is an editor with The Issues Network.