The Higgs government in New Brunswick is desperate for a gimmick to fulfill its obligations under the constraints of the federal carbon tax. The federal carbon reduction initiative requires NB Power to phase-out the Belledune coal-fired generating plant by 2030. Similar to other climate change procrastinators, the premier is unable to accept that a shift to green energy is the province’s only option.
Thus we have seen in 2019 several off-the-wall proposals for a quick fix to New Brunswick’s dilemma. First, it was revealed by CBC that NB Power had invested $12 million in Joi Scientific of Florida, which proposed to build the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine to produce clean hydrogen gas from seawater. Then, we were treated to the revelation that the province is also investing in small modular nuclear reactors (SMNR) that have no proven feasibility, and which have no solution to the problem of disposal of their nuclear waste. Jacques Poitras of CBC and MLA David Coon have recently exposed a questionable effort to skirt around the constraints of the Energy and Utilities Board in pursuing and funding SMNR research and development. The shadowy cabal included the quasi-Crown corporation, NB Energy Solutions, along with R&D firms, ARC Nuclear and Moltex Energy, and included assorted civil servants, private consultants, and academics.
Any definitive proof of the feasibility or lack thereof of these reactors is years away. What is more likely in the short term is a renewed push for uranium exploration in order to hype the illusion that SMNRs are for real. It is no accident that Premier Higgs has joined with his counterparts in the uranium producing provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan, to push for SMNRs.
We can expect to see talk of uranium exploration in New Brunswick picking up speed in the coming months. New Brunswickers would be well advised to review not only past conflicts over uranium mining in the province but also to heed public health warnings about proceeding haphazardly with any kind of invasive development that places water and air resources at risk. The recommendations made in 2012 by the NB Chief Medical Officer of Health with respect to shale gas exploration also apply to uranium exploration. Without sufficient regulation, exploration will inevitably bring to the surface radioactive material from deep within the earth, placing ground and surface waters at risk. With poor setbacks, poor prior testing, poor drilling oversight and poor waste management regulation, domestic water supplies and wells in affected areas will inevitably be placed at risk.
Before reviewing the history and the Chief Medical Officer of Health recommendations, it is important to consider the communities most likely at risk. The map below pinpoints locations of past exploration work on uranium claims. In many of these locations, the population is relatively dense and drilled wells are the sole source of water.
In 2008, the province experienced an upswing in uranium exploration activity, buoyed by an unusual spike in uranium prices internationally. The New Brunswick Environmental Network, The Petitcodiac Riverkeepers, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and the community organization Support Citizens Against Radioactive Emissions New Brunswick (S.C.A.R.E. NB) mobilized to raise community awareness of the dangers of uranium exploration and mining. The coalition demanded that the government of the day impose a permanent ban on uranium mining in the province. Although public pressure did not succeed in achieving a ban or a moratorium, the pressure did succeed in getting the government of 2008 to modify its “Standard Conditions for Mineral Exploration” to include specific but weak constraints on uranium mining.
Significantly, the revised guidelines, which are still in effect, do not include a setback for exploratory drilling in proximity to domestic water wells. The guidelines only require that wells within 500 metres of exploration sites be tested prior to drilling. The only other health and safety constraint of consequence is a requirement that all radioactive material be returned to the drilled hole, with concurrent grouting and sealing of the drill column. These two constraints are similar to the ineffective constraints on exploration for shale gas exploration, which the New Brunswick public so vehemently opposed from 2011 to 2013.
In 2008 and subsequent years, following the activism of 2008, the NB Media Co-op published a number of articles outlining the dangers of poorly-regulated uranium mining and nuclear power, including a story from a uranium mining town in Ontario, outlining the folly of the Lepreau nuclear reactor, and the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima reactors in Japan. The Conservation Council published an information sheet on uranium mining.
In the end, as with shale gas, and tungsten, it was the collapse of commodity prices that eventually curtailed mining industry interest in the province’s relatively poor deposits of uranium. However, as mining expert Joan Kuyek (1) has documented, exploratory mining companies are all too ready to exploit public gullibility and governmental ignorance to capitalize on these unwitting pawns in their highly profitable investment games.
Given the desperation of today’s politicians, the government will likely find it expedient to funnel taxpayer money into new uranium exploration enterprises. This “investment” will be needed to create the hype and the illusion that something significant is happening to reinforce the government’s claims about SMNRs. The province is now faced with the prospect of renewed haphazard uranium drilling to commence in areas where previous work has indicated some “whiffs” of uranium. If this happens, settler and Indigenous residents in the affected areas will need to be vigilant and ready to mobilize to protect their interests.
Whether or not uranium mining is in the cards in the near future, the public needs to demand that the 2012 recommendations of the Chief Medical Officer of Health be immediately implemented to include ALL endeavours that threaten our precious water resource. While many of the Chief Medical Officer’s recommendations apply to the developmental stage of the uranium mining industry, several recommendations apply specifically to the exploration stage. These guidelines need to be in place in order to protect public health against the gaps in knowledge about cumulative and full life-cycle effects of the radioactive resource and its use.
With respect to uranium and its by-products as created by the nuclear reactor process, neither the province nor scientists nor society in general has answers to these crucial questions about cumulative and full life-cycle impacts. Nor does the province know how effectively radioactive waste can be contained and managed at exploration sites. Bringing deep-seated radioactive material to the surface is akin to letting the genie out of the bottle; there is no return to pre-drill conditions. Just as shale gas exploration has possibly brought deep seated methane to surface wells in the Elgin area (2), bringing radioactive material to the surface via uranium exploration will be fraught with insufficient regulatory baseline monitoring and uninformed reactive response. The damage will have been done and the impacts will be irreversible.
Unfortunately, the government of New Brunswick has historically had a poor record of ensuring citizen health related to exposure to radioactivity. A 2008 CBC report, based on the work of Inka Milewski, then science advisor for the Conservation Council, revealed that the provincial government had not followed up on recommended testing of residents in the Harvey area after high levels of radioactive radon gas were found in that area dating back to 1981. That lack of action to ensure citizen health and safety from 1981 to 2008 is a lesson for all New Brunswick communities. Communities may find themselves at the mercy of uranium exploration companies, and a government pursuing an ill-advised quest for small modular nuclear reactors: the New Brunswick government will not have your back.
Lawrence Wuest is an ecologist living in the Upper Nashwaak on unceded territory of the Wəlastəkwiyik, Mi’kmaq, and Peskotomuhkati.
(1) Kuyek, Joan. 2018. Behind the Pebble Mine: Hunter Dickinson Inc. The Canadian Mining Company You’ve Never Heard Of. Report prepared for and published by MiningWatch Canada.
(2) Al, T., J. Leblanc and S. Phillips. 2013. A Study of Groundwater Quality from Domestic Wells in the Sussex and Elgin Regions, New Brunswick: with Comparison to Deep Formation Water and Gas from the McCully Gas Field” Geological Survey of Canada Open File 7449. Natural Resources Canada.