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Uranium mining dangers being hidden, expert warns; Geopolitical, environmental concerns not worth short-term economic gain, author argues

The Ottawa Citizen: Katie Daubs - January 24, 2008

An expert on uranium mining is coming to the Ottawa region with a warning: Don't let it happen to you.

Jim Harding, the former director of research in the School of Human Justice at the University of Regina, will be in Ottawa and Wakefield this week to discuss his book, Canada's Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System.

>From Saskatchewan himself, Mr. Harding takes issue with the uranium mining that occurs in the north of the province, "out of sight and out of mind" of most citizens.

He argues that the geopolitical uses and long-term environmental effects are being hidden, and outweigh the short-term economic gain by which communities and governments are sometimes wooed.

He cites the Harper government's eager acceptance of nuclear energy as evidence that Canada is going down a path of misplaced intentions.

"We like to think we're a peace broker, but behind the scenes, we've been supplying fuel for the weapons system since the '50s," he said.

Murray Elston, the president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, dismisses Mr. Harding's allegations as an exaggeration of the facts.

"Other people do have weapons and that's true, but the folks at Foreign Affairs are very strong about the use of the materials," he said.

Mr. Elston is citing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that Canada has signed as a non-nuclear nation. Through the agreement, all trade is prefaced with the understanding that nuclear products will only be used for energy purposes.

For his part, Mr. Elston also cites a few of nuclear energy's positive impacts on society: medical isotopes and clean energy.

But Mr. Harding isn't convinced about that last part. He cites the Ham Commission of 1976 that studied the health effects of radon gas on uranium miners in Elliot Lake. The study found a high incidence of lung cancer in the miners and made several recommendations that created new safety standards.

Mr. Elston was not able to comment on the Ham Commission specifically, but said other studies have shown that exposure does not cause health problems.

The only active uranium mines in Canada are located in Saskatchewan. Mr. Harding said companies are now looking elsewhere as demand is high and supply is dwindling.

The prospect of uranium mining has been widely debated in Eastern Ontario and western Quebec, as claims dot a large swath of land in the two regions, including unceded Algonquin land in the Sharbot Lake area.

George White, the CEO of Frontenac Ventures, the company in the midst of the turmoil, dismissed Mr. Harding as "just another alarmist."

He said the only thing he could agree with Mr. Harding about is the fact that the long- term effects of the spent uranium, or "tailings," are unknown.

"That's why they're storing it until they can figure out how to handle it," he said.

Much of the uproar regarding uranium mining results from the fact that the Ontario and Quebec mining acts do not require public consultation before mining can occur. Companies can legally stake a claim on private property if the owner does not possess the mineral rights.

The province of Ontario received notice of intent for a class action lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the act in December. Nothing similar has been filed in Quebec, although public consultations with the Quebec ministry of natural resources were held in October and a report is set to come out soon, said Michael Patenaude of the West Quebec Coalition Against Mining.

"Stay tuned," he said.

Talk and discussion: Today at 7:30 p.m. Black Sheep Inn, Wakefield.

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