Clean energy at what cost? Algonquin leader questions nuclear industry’s uranium mining practices By Anne Galloway

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Feb 4, 2010, 10:14:15 AM2/4/10
to The Frontenac Uranium Standoff
Clean energy at what cost? Algonquin leader questions nuclear
industry’s uranium mining practices

By Anne Galloway on January 29, 2010
Tailings from a uranium mine in Ontario

Tailings from a uranium mine in Ontario. Pictures and video at:
http://vtdigger.org/2010/01/29/clean-energy-at-what-cost-algonquin-leader-questions-nuclear-industrys-uranium-mining-practices/

Correction: Lorraine Rekmans said leftover crushed rock from the
mining process was used as backfill for schools, hospitals and homes.
Originally, the story erroneously stated that tailings were used. We
apologize for the error.

In an era of climate change, energy experts often talk about nuclear
power as a carbon-neutral source of electricity compared with coal-
generated electricity.

Vermont Yankee’s Web site says the plant has “prevented more than 50
million tons of carbon and other pollutants from being released into
the environment. As a result, Vermont has the second-lowest per-capita
carbon footprint of any state in the U.S.”

In fact, if you run a Google search for Vermont Yankee, the plant’s
Web site pops up under the URL http://www.safecleanreliable.com/.
Those three words — “safe,” “clean,” “reliable” — also dominate the
main real estate on the front page of the Web site and serve as the
company slogan.

Since a leak of radioactive tritium was discovered at the plant
recently, however, Vermont officials have begun to question Vermont
Yankee’s motto.

Tritium is a known carcinogen, and water in a monitoring well and a
concrete tunnel under the plant has tested for elevated levels of the
radioactive isotope. Legislative leaders, the governor and Vermont’s
congressional delegation have called for an investigation by the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission and have questioned whether Entergy,
parent company of the plant, misled regulators and the public about
the existence of inaccessible, underground piping under the facility,
now suspected to be the source of the leak.
Lorraine Rekmans

Lorraine Rekmans

Lorraine Rekmans, the aboriginal affairs critic for the Green Party in
Canada, has her own reasons to question the safety of nuclear power —
she grew up in Elliott Lake, a uranium mining town near Lake Huron in
the Algonquin territory of Ontario.

Her message to lawmakers: Nuclear power isn’t clean energy.

“I’m deeply offended when people say that nuclear energy is clean and
safe,” Rekmans said. “If you have a look at my territory, there is
nothing clean about it. We can’t eat the fish there.”

What does uranium mining in remote, rural Canada have to do with
Vermont?

Members of the House and Senate Natural Resources committees found out
on Wednesday.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-Plainfield, chairman of the House Natural Resources
Committee, asked Rekmans to speak to lawmakers about the environmental
impacts of uranium extraction.

Uranium from Rekmans’ territory, Klein said, had been used to fuel
Vermont Yankee before the last of the mines closed in 1996. The plant
is refueled every 18 months.

“Proponents of this technology always talk about perceived benefits
and always gloss over and sugarcoat the extreme liabilities that go
along with it,” Klein said in an interview. “Most people generally
understand the liabilities of the spent waste, but they have no idea
of the liabilities that come along with the production of the fuel. So
I wanted my committee and other legislators to be able to see this in
its total life cycle and the effect of the production of this fuel,
which is always distant, always out of mind.”

Rekmans told lawmakers that uranium mining in the Elliott Lake region
has contaminated the Lake Huron watershed. Ten lakes in her territory
are used as cesspools for tailing waste, she said.

She pointed to a photograph of a tailings dam projected on a screen in
Room 10 of the Statehouse showing a stream of effluent running through
silt and dead trees. In all, 170 million tons of radioactive tailings
have been dumped in the territory, she said; the Southwest Research
and Information Center wrote in a report for Northwatch that the
Elliot Lake Tailings Management Areas are “among the largest uranium
production waste sites in the world.
Elliott Lake

Elliott Lake

Rekmans described how miners blasted and dug hard rock from uranium
ore pits in 11 locations in her territory. The raw ore was then
crushed and mixed with sulfuric acid to remove the impurities. The
refinery plants extracted one pound of uranium for every ton of rock.

American companies owned the mines and shipped most of the uranium to
the United States for use in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons
over a 41-year period.

Rekmans said uranium mining started in the region in 1955, and the
last plant was closed in 1996. She said leftover crushed rock from the
mining process was used as backfill for schools, hospitals and homes.

Rekmans described how women would hang laundry on the line and would
find their clothing full of holes when it was dry. Men who left cash
in their pockets when they went to work at the plant found the color
had disappeared from their legal tender by the time they returned
home. Children came home from playgrounds with disintegrated
shoelaces.

Many of her people contracted cancer and silicosis from constant
exposure to radon from the tailings, Rekmans said.

“They were not informed that mining uranium was dangerous,” Rekmans
said. “They were never told that they would get cancer and silicosis
and die. The information came out in 1976, nearly 25 years after
they began working without ventilation. So it really troubled me to
see that the corporation had signed on at cost-plus contracts without
any risks, and they were too damn cheap to put proper ventilation
systems in the mines to protect the workers.

“Uranium mining kills; it’s a fact of life,” she said.

Rekmans’ father died at the age of 63 from a uranium-related illness,
and her family was denied worker’s compensation benefits for his
death. Though her father worked in the mines, the Canadian government
told her he didn’t die because of exposure to uranium. Typically,
miners receive a death benefit payment of $35,000.

According to an article in MIT’s Technology Review, uranium shortages
are imminent. Michael Dittmar, a global nuclear industry expert, told
the Review in November that uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013,
unless the nuclear power industry gets access to military uranium
stocks.

The mining industry supplies 40,000 tons of uranium to nuclear power
plants worldwide; the industry’s total annual demand for the ore is
65,000 tons, according to the Review. The remainder comes from
military and civilian stockpiles.

As the nuclear renaissance gains support in the United States, Rekmans
fears demand for more uranium to fuel new plants will lead to the
reopening of mines in her territory.

Rekmans took aim at the industry’s claim that nuclear power is
inexpensive.

“It is cheap,” she said. “It’s only $35,000 for a dead miner. That’s
cheap. I’m really offended. Cheap power, too cheap to meter. At what
cost? Who pays that cost? Frankly, we’re not willing to pay that cost
anymore. Frankly, sourcing is going to be a real problem. If I have
anything to say about it, I am committed to keeping uranium mining out
of my territory. Never again.”

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