March/April 2010

First Nations

Advice on managing public opinion for developing a uranium operation

By J. C. Reyes

For most people, the word “uranium” invokes a number of negative connotations. This is due mainly to having grown up hearing about nuclear catastrophes like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — which all equates to a poor rap for the mineral. I asked a few of my friends, family doctors, engineers, geologists, to tell me what came to mind when they thought about uranium exploration and mining. Not surprisingly, most of them had some reservations, but no one could give me specific reasons why they felt this way. Similar apprehensions, with little or no reasoning, might also explain why a group of doctors in Sept-Îles threatened to quit if uranium exploration continued in their region.

But, I can’t blame my friends or these doctors for thinking the way they do. I would probably feel the same if it was not for a visit to Saskatchewan a few years ago. There is a lot of negative information about uranium currently being circulated. For example, if you were to type the word “uranium” in Google, topping the list of results are current news items about Iran’s uranium enrichment scheme — a topic that, for most people, is linked to nuclear weapons. Also, the first website you will come across that actually talks about uranium mining and exploration is likely to be “Uranium: The Deadliest Metal” or other similarly disparaging articles, which offer scant references to scientific data or even statistics that are over 100 years old.

Admittedly, there are a number of health risks involved in the handling, exploration and mining of uranium. Vice-Chief Don Deranger of the Prince Albert Grand Council, who has worked in uranium mines for decades and has seen the industry when regulation was nothing but a pipe dream, admits that there are health risks involved in the industry. In Canada, however, because of our strict federal regulations, these risks are now virtually non-issues. Uranium is a naturally occurring element that can be found in low levels within all rocks, soil and water.

According to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), studies demonstrate that present-day uranium workers, and the public living near a uranium mine or mill, suffer no additional health issues than the average Canadian. There is no evidence of illnesses in Canada attributed to uranium exposure. In 2008-09, all uranium mines and mills in the country were inspected by CNSC and provincial inspectors, with some being subjected to as many as eight CNSC inspections. The uranium mining and milling industry is the only mining industry in Canada licensed, regulated and monitored by the federal government.

When we move the uranium issue into the Aboriginal arena, where mining is already a contentious topic thanks to its environmental footprint, you have the makings of a potential nightmare. My advice to companies in this industry is to practice the “golden rules” of a successful engagement:

  • Prior to any work being undertaken, make it a priority to engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue right from the beginning, and keep the lines of communication open.  
  • Be prepared to answer difficult questions and to bring in independent consultants who can provide the community with advice — and hopefully some reassurances. 
  • Do not downplay the community’s feelings or the seriousness of the situation.

Developing a uranium operation can be a very risky proposition. A lot of education needs to take place before moving too quickly.

Juan Carlos Reyes is an Aboriginal consultant with and the executive director of Learning Together. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian Aboriginal people.

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