Uranium exploration approval raises broad issues in Québec


The recent decision by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to grant a five year uranium exploration license to Strateco Resources for a project in the Otish Basin in northern Québec has led to significant discussion about the future of uranium exploration and mining in Québec.

The application itself was not particularly noteworthy - the CNSC granted a five year license to Strateco to carry out advanced uranium exploration activities.  Uranium mining, if desired, would be the subject of a later application and approval if desired by the proponent. 

During the course of hearings into the application, nine Cree nations in northern Québec raised significant concerns about uranium exploration and mining.  The CNSC dealt with the submissions of the Cree nations in its reasons for decisions.

The approval of the exploration license has also renewed calls for a moratorium on uranium exploration.  The Parti Québecois called for a moratorium on uranium mining in Québec when it was in opposition in 2009, and the Cree Regional Authority called for a moratorium within Cree territory in 2011. 

As well,  Québec's Environment Minister has now ordered the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) to conduct hearings to review the environmental effects of the uranium industry generally.  This will, according to Minister Breton, have the effect of forcing Strateco to wait until those hearings are concluded before proceeding with exploration activities. 

No further information is available on any hearings to be held by BAPE.

All of which has led to a very interesting development - the President of the CNSC, Michael Binder, published an open letter on the CNSC's website last week to respond directly to the moratorium issue.  Entitled "Uranium Moratoriums are Not Supported by Science", the letter sets out positions on a variety of topics, including that:

  • discussions of a uranium exploration moratorium are based on neither fact nor science
  • uranium mining is the most regulated, monitored and understood type of mining in Canada
  • activists, medical practitioners and politicians who have demanded moratoriums may have various reasons for doing so but their claims that the public and the environment are at risk are fundamentally wrong
  • provincial governments that have decided to ban uranium exploration are ignoring years of evidence-based scientifc research on the uranium industry
  • the CNSC would never compromise safety by issuing a license if it was not safe to do so
  • environmental and worker monitoring shows that all relevant limits are being complied with at existing operations
  • uranium mining is as safe as conventional mining

Both the content and tone of the letter are curious.  A letter of this nature, from the head of an independent regulatory authority, which makes a number of assertions about the safety of uranium mining and which specifically takes issue with the positions taken by those who appear before the regulator in opposition to proposed projects, is highly unusual.   A question might reasonably be raised as to whether, by taking positions on issues which regularly come up before the CNSC, the regulator has inappropriately crossed the line into advocacy. 

The full text of the open letter is here.  We will report on further developments from the CNSC and BAPE as they are available.

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