A Canadian mining executive has urged the government of Nova Scotia to consider overturning or amending the province’s ban on mining uranium, arguing that a reversal could yield financial benefits for the province and that leaving it in the ground could pose more health risks than mining it.
Mining uranium has been banned in the province since 2009 due to risks to ‘environmental and human health’, according to Gary Burrill, the leader of Nova Scotia’s New Democratic Party. However, Sean Kirby, the executive director of the Mining Association of Nova Scotia, argued in favour of opening mining operations, at least to explore for and catalogue the presence of uranium in the province.
Kirby said: “there absolutely would be a significant economic benefit to the province.”
Canada is the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, and Kirby is eager to tap into an industry worth around $1.6bn. New Brunswick, another province on the east coast of Canada, has invested $10m into a new nuclear research cluster, and US-based company Advanced Reactor Concepts has committed 5m into nuclear research and operations in New Brunswick.
In addition to the economic potential of lifting the ban, there could be safety considerations. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates uranium mining operations in the country, working to assess and minimise related risks, but Nova Scotia’s ban on mining the material means there are no active mines in the province, and so the CNSC has no authority in the region.
This means there is no central authority responsible for monitoring the presence of uranium and spread of radon gas in Nova Scotia, leading to some to suggest that the ban on uranium mining could actually be doing more to harm Nova Scotians than protect them.
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“Having a piece of uraninite next to you is not inherently dangerous,” said Dr Erin Adlakha, an assistant professor and mineralogist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, the Nova Scotian capital. “It is radioactive but that radioactive decay is producing primarily alpha particles and those particles are low energy. They only travel eight centimetres into the air and so they can’t penetrate your skin.”
Adlakha added that uranium is potentially dangerous if left alone, where it can give off uraninite particles or radon gas, which can lead to the development of lung cancer if inhaled over long periods of time, or deposit radioactive material into drinking water.
“Leaving it in the ground is not the option,” she said.
Environmental groups have opposed the lifting of the ban, as the construction of new mining operations could lead to exactly the kind of water and air pollution its overturning would aim to address. Gretchen Fitzgerald, the director of the Atlantic Canada chapter of the environmentalist group the Sierra Club Canada foundation referred to programmes such as radon monitors being placed in people’s homes that can assess and respond to the dangers posed by uranium, without the need to authorise large-scale mining operations.
The Nova Scotia government recently created an Energy and Mines Department but is largely unwilling to reverse the ban.
Media relations officer Bruce Nunn said: “Government departments are always looking for better ways to serve the interests of Nova Scotians. When a new idea or approach reaches the point of warranting a policy discussion, we will have those discussions. However, as we have said, changes to the Uranium Prohibition Act are not being discussed nor contemplated at this time.”