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Uranium ban sends radioactive signal

Globe and Mail: PATRICK BRETHOUR - May 2, 2008

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Last Monday, an envelope arrived at the B.C. Ministry of Mines containing a formal application from Boss Power Corp. to explore for uranium in the mountainous terrain southeast of Kelowna.

Boss Power got its answer just three days later, although the response - and how it was delivered - was not anything it had hoped for. British Columbia slapped a moratorium on all uranium exploration, going so far as to refuse to issue any new mineral rights for uranium.

Boss president and CEO David Stone got a call shortly after the announcement to tell him that the government was, for all intents and purposes, shutting down his business. Boss shares cratered the next day, falling by half.

Kevin Krueger, B.C. Minister of State for Mining, insists that no one in the government was aware of the Boss application, and that the documents sat on the desk of a bureaucrat out of the office on field work. One would have to take the minister at his word, although Mr. Krueger and others were well aware that Boss intended to make such an application at some point.

But there remains the little matter of why the B.C. government felt the need to act with such finality, and so precipitously. It's certainly not because the government was convinced of any environmental or health peril posed by uranium mining. "Saskatchewan has proved, and is proving every day, that uranium can be mined responsibly," Mr. Krueger says.

That might seem like a solid rationale for allowing carefully scrutinized exploration to proceed. Wrong. "We'll leave our uranium in the ground, and that's what the public wants," says Mr. Krueger, adding that the Liberals have no intention of changing course later, come what may. "That's a forever position, as far as this government is concerned."

The reason is simple enough. The public doesn't like uranium, therefore the government has banned it. A good deal of the public opposition has come from the direction of the Big White ski resort, which would be within sight of the proposed mine. And Mr. Krueger mentions that B.C. won't need the uranium itself, since it has no need for nuclear power.

Unfortunately for B.C., neither of those reasons would have allowed the province to say no to the Boss application. According to Mr. Krueger, an exploration application can only be turned down for a specific environmental or health threat. Having an inchoate dislike for the idea of uranium isn't a sufficient rationale, at least at the regulatory level. And that really is the trigger for the moratorium: The government could not say no to Boss specifically, so it had to deny it - and everyone else.

That approach is out of step, to say the least, with Mr. Krueger's comments from last July, when he assured would-be explorers that uranium mining was possible in B.C. "It is not ruled out. If there's an application for exploration, it will be given full consideration just like any other application. The chief inspector of mines will make a decision on it," he told The Globe and Mail.

But since then, the Liberals have seized the green agenda from the opposition NDP by launching an innovative carbon tax. Why cede that electoral advantage over a minuscule uranium drilling effort that in any case would have tarnished the view from the summits of the Big White ski resort?

Mr. Stone is not oblivious to the fact that uranium and nuclear power are politically sensitive topics in B.C.; Boss had already decided that any mining would not start until after the provincial election in May, 2009. He is now left with essentially worthless uranium prospects, with legal action against B.C. about the only way to recoup any of his firm's investment or lost profits from potentially hundreds of millions of dollars of uranium ore.

The immediate fallout from the moratorium has hit just one company. But Dan Jepsen, head of the Association for Mineral Exploration in B.C., a mining industry umbrella group, is worried that the sudden freeze hands ammunition to those wanting to lure international capital elsewhere. The new message track, courtesy of the provincial government: You can't mine uranium in B.C., but the business environment is turning radioactive.

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