Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium (CCAMU)
Inquiry on the Impacts of the Uranium Cycle
Uranium: Pros and Cons
by Bert Horwood
First I want to thank the organizers of this inquiry for all their work and express my hope for an influential report.|
My presentation has three parts: the first will outline experiences which impel me to think that it is wrong to mine uranium. The second will outline the contrary factors, those considerations that make it hard to resist uranium mining. The last part will outline some implications of living in a uranium-free world. Please note that the oral presentation at the hearing is a summary of the fuller remarks given in this document.
Impelling Factors: The carrot and the stick
I’ve had a number of experiences which impel me to think that mining uranium is wrong. They are like carrots and sticks, pulling and pushing me toward a radical and unpopular position. Those experiences are outlined here.
1. Kinship: I was raised in the Ottawa Valley and spent a good deal of my time in the bush, and for significant periods alone. A consequence is that I feel a close kinship with the natural world. This sense of kinship was enhanced by undergraduate and graduate studies in Biology. Thus, a long series of personal and academic experiences leads me to feel that the rocks, trees, birds and beasts are my relatives.
2. A nuclear accident. I worked for Atomic Energy of Canada Limited one summer helping to measure the radioactive material which had escaped into Perch Lake, near the reactor sites at Chalk River, after the 1952 accident in the NRX reactor. It was a surprise to learn that even the world’s leading nuclear engineers could not prevent a serious accident nor control the emitted radioactive waste.
3. Radiation in the biosphere. One day, I was eating lunch in my work boat and drifting near shore on Perch Lake when a great blue heron landed to fish along the shallows. It stood still for a while and then stabbed down to catch a frog. Then it lifted off in its ungainly way, and soared out of sight. I knew that the frogs in Perch Lake were contaminated with Strontium-90 and Caesium-137. The heron had demonstrated one of the hundreds of ways that radioactive material migrates through the biosphere, contaminating each level as it goes.
4. Unusual deaths. About 15 people worked long hours in the plant physiology laboratories at Queen’s in the late 50’s and early sixties. Carbon-14 and Phosphorus-32 tracers were used in that lab. Four of the people associated with that place died from leukemia within a decade. I find it hard to think that this was a coincidence or a random chance happening.
These last three experiences with radioactive materials provide a basis for my profound distrust of expert claims to nuclear safety and containment.
5. Mining. There have been two attempts to establish mines on Desert Lake, north of Kingston near Verona, in the last 25 years. My cottage is there and I was fully engaged in negotiating with the mining companies. I learned that controlling regulations (Municipal, Provincial, or Federal) are not enforced. We experienced illegal blasting. The companies ignored environmental protection agreements, misrepresented engineering drawings, and broke employment promises. Planning was done using discredited models and flawed data. The Provincial and Federal Governments were fully supportive of the mining activities and even handed out grants and subsidies while failing to enforce their own regulations. This was my limited experience with only two mining companies, but it does lead to strong lack of confidence, especially given the continuing privilege accorded mining operations by governments.
I think that the mining industry as it is currently licensed and governed is incompatible with environmental responsibility.
6. A grandson. Holding my first grandchild in my arms changed my perspective on the world. It made me much more concerned about what we were leaving behind, about what sort of places there would be when he came to hold his grandchild.
7. Quaker faith and practice. I discovered Quaker faith and practice. I became a Quaker and now use the processes of spiritual discernment common in that religious society. Those discernment processes lift experiences into an illuminated position. They give spiritual weight and authority to decisions. Quaker processes also link current experience with other historical questions of justice and right action which earlier Quakers encountered. They give me courage to take an unpopular stand.
Inhibiting Factors: Stones in my shoes
Given the strength and duration of these impelling experiences, I should be actively working for a permanent ban on using uranium. But I’m not. The reason is that there are sharp stones in my shoes which inhibit action.
1. Electricity. The sharpest stone is electricity. Here we are in this church hall using electricity purchased from Ontario Power Generation. Roughly half of the energy in use right here is generated in nuclear facilities. As long as I use even one watt-second of energy from nuclear sources, I can not properly oppose the exploration for, and mining of, uranium.
2. Good people. Another problem is the excellent people I know who have connections to the nuclear industry. There are people whose opinions I value highly and who demon-strate public responsibility who are entirely supportive of the nuclear industry. It is hard to oppose their opinions.
3. Nuclear medicine. The third stone in my shoe is the cruel dilemma posed by the use of radionuclides in diagnosis and treatment of disease. It’s not clear how these health benefits could be kept without uranium reactors. On the other hand, the benefits come at human and environmental cost and it’s also not clear why some people should suffer in order to reduce suffering for others.
A moratorium on uranium mining will have to find resolutions to these inhibiting factors.
Implications: Head and heart
There is a story that when Sir Walter Raleigh came to be executed, the headsman, leaning on his axe, asked him if he wanted to have his head facing the east. Sir Walter said “It doesn’t matter what direction you face, as long as the heart is right.”
This is an issue which is both a question of direction and a matter for the heart to be right. Evidence and reasoned argument can tell us what is the right direction, but only the sound heart can give us the motives and strength to actually change direction.
Some 250 years ago a few Quakers became convinced that slavery was wrong. The problem was that it was common for Quakers to own and trade slaves. Before going public with a ban on slavery, the Quakers had to first convince their fellows to free their slaves. This involved sacrifices, many disagreements, and years of struggle. Eventually, the Quakers were able to join other like-minded people to work for a general abolition.
The nuclear industry is comparable to slavery. Our whole culture is dedicated to using the electricity from nuclear sources. It will require sacrifice, many disagreements, and long years of struggle to reach a point where there will be no market for nuclear-generated electricity. This is what any serious abolitionist must work for: refusal by millions of people to buy and use nuclear-generated electricity.
A second question relates to the compulsion to use technology. Just because it is possible to do something is not a reason for doing it. Society is largely governed by various taboos, which are general agreements that certain possible actions are wrong. Such actions are usually forbidden in law as well as in custom. My conviction is that a nuclear industry should come under a general social taboo. Society should agree that the best place for uranium ore is in the earth and that we will learn to live rich full lives, much as our ancestors did, without disturbing it.
A cruel dilemma is posed by nuclear medicine. There are well-established cases of disease caused by radioactive contamination. But there also well-established cures resulting from diagnosis and treatment using radiation techniques. Are people willing to forgo possible treatments? Can we accept the intrinsic health hazards of mining uranium to derive health benefits? Or have we the courage to accept disease and possibly earlier death by refusing such treatment? The issue of uranium mining is nothing less than a life and death matter which demands that we consider the full and true price of prolonging life.
These issues point to certain value conflicts. How are we to understand and live the good life? If it is defined in terms of consumption, one set of answers regarding resource extraction and energy production ensues. But if the good life is defined in other terms, a more sustainable set of answers and practices emerges. It’s a question of direction and this inquiry is an excellent example of the kind of wide popular debate that is needed so that we proceed with more awareness and less blindness.
Finally, there is an ancient medical rule, “do no harm.” The positive version of this might be “do that which love and compassion directs.” We could well adopt these as operating principles. Whatever the good life will look like in the future it should not be based on harm to the biosphere. I can’t see how uranium-based industry can do anything but harm. And I can’t see that a nuclear industry is compatible with the practice of love and compassion.