Quebec uranium commission makes recommendation

20 July 2015

A public consultation on uranium mining in Québec has concluded that operations should not be allowed to proceed at present, but has called on the Canadian province's government not to make a hasty decision on its future action.

The report by Québec's Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE) was published by the province's minister for sustainable development, environment and climate change David Huertel on 17 July. It is the culmination of one year's work by the commission set up by BAPE in May 2014 to study the environmental and social impacts of uranium exploration and mining, following a moratorium on new uranium exploration and mining permits imposed by the province in April that year.

The 626-page report is published in French but with English summaries available. It concludes that uranium mining operations at present in the province are "counterindicated" because of "limitations and uncertainties" in the current state of knowledge over mining technology and environmental management strategies. It will now be analysed by an inter-ministerial committee, Huertel said.

"During its inquiry and hearings, the commission found that substantial progress has been made in recent decades in the areas of mining technology and waste confinement strategies, as a result of uranium mining experience in Canada and elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, many scientific and technological limitations and uncertainties still persist and numerous questions have yet to be answered," the report notes.

A particular issue highlighted in the summary is the perceived challenge of managing mining wastes. "The most recent confinement technique recommended in Canada has been in use for only 30 years. How is it possible to assert that this technology will prove to be reliable in the longer term, since it will take many decades to monitor and assess its efficiency and reliability? Older technologies are considered outdated today, even though they were thought to offer lasting solutions when first introduced," the English-language summary states.

In the course of its work the BAPE commission held public hearings throughout Québec as well as joint hearings with the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment and the Kativik Environmental Advisory Committee, which act as consultative bodies and oversee the administration of environmental and social protection in northern Québec's James Bay territory and Nunavik region. Heurtel acknowledged that the expert opinions gathered by BAPE through the inquiry process were far from unanimous, with no substantial scientific or social consensus.

No hasty decision

While concluding that it would be "premature" to authorize the development of a uranium industry at the present, the BAPE commission is urging the Québec government not to make a hasty decision on whether to suspend uranium mining on a temporary or permanent basis because of potential legal and economic impacts. However, it stipulates that should the government decide to permit uranium mining to go ahead, it must ensure social acceptability through an extensive information program and cooperation and consensus-building strategy; overcome "technological uncertainties and current gaps in scientific knowledge"; and develop a legal framework to allow it to control uranium mining operations in the province. "Realistically, the commission believes it will take several years to achieve these conditions", it states.

Canada is a major uranium producer, accounting for 16% of world output in 2013. All of the country's uranium is currently mined in northern Saskatchewan. While exploration has concentrated on northern Saskatchewan, new prospects extend to Labrador and Nova Scotia as well as Quebec, Nunavut Territory in the far north, and the Elliott Lake area in Ontario where uranium has been mined in the past.

Québec's moratorium led to Strateco Resources' June 2014 decision to suspend its work at the Matoush site in the province after the provincial government denied permission for underground exploration. The company had invested more than CAD123 million ($114 million) in the project under existing licences, and in December launched a damages claim against the government for the loss of its investments. Strateco has since filed for bankruptcy protection.

The publication of BAPE's report was welcomed by the Cree Nation, which has long opposed uranium mining development. "We have said from the start that once Quebecers learn the facts about uranium, the risks it poses, and the questions that cannot be adequately answered, they would join with us in opposing uranium development," Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said in a statement.

Quebec Mining Association president Josée Méthot praised the decision to review the report by an inter-ministerial committee, and pointed to Saskatchewan as an example of a well-regulated uranium mining industry providing socio-economic benefits while respecting people and the environment. "We are pleased that the government does not immediately reject the uranium industry that could create a new industry in Quebec", Methot said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News