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July 4, 2012

From Fukushima to Saskatchewan: Canada’s Uranium Trap

SS Editorial


On March 11 2011, an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the community of Fukushima in Japan. Over 19,000 died. This natural disaster also destroyed four of the six reactors at the Daiichi nuclear power plant, releasing large amounts of radioactive elements. This disaster has made the local area uninhabitable for decades – disrupting the lives of 80,000 evacuees. Only the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 is larger.

But the Daiichi plant didn’t fail just because of a natural catastrophe. It also failed due to the self interest of Japan’s power elites. Upon investigation, it is clear that regulation was lax by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The owner, TEPCO, ignored safety reports, falsified records, and called in political favors from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to avoid remediation. Lax regulation was also due to NISA’s conflict of interest - being a branch of the Trade Ministry, charged with promoting nuclear power.

All 50 reactors nationally had to be shut down and now there is a municipal campaign to prevent their reopening. A national petition has been signed by 7.5 million people to this effect. Yet the current government, the Democratic Party, has restarted two reactors in Ohi, western Japan while promising a more autonomous regulatory approach in the future.

As Japan’s power elites define the nation’s economic interests, an energy economy that carries catastrophic risk trumps basic human security.

Canada, as the world’s leading uranium exporter, and persistent marketer of uneconomic nuclear technology in the form of CANDU reactors, is an active proponent of catastrophic nuclear power risk. This can be seen in the industry’s war origins, its subsidized, yet unregulated, marketing, and Canada’s contribution to nuclear proliferation among competing nations - for whom atomic war is a rational choice if fundamentally threatened.

If tar sands oil threatens to dramatically contribute to global warming, Canadian uranium threatens to end the human species.

Atoms for Nuclear War

Nuclear power was developed for war, as the most powerful weapon in the clash of rival imperialisms in World War II and the Cold War. Canada played a vital role in the supply of uranium from the North West Territories, initial processing at Port Hope, Ontario, and as part of the research division of labor with a laboratory in Montreal and the Chalk River (Ottawa) reactor in the American bomb development effort, the Manhattan Project.

All of these projects were soon harnessed by the major powers, openly or covertly. The United States put the supply of Canadian uranium, and the production of plutonium (weapons grade fissile material) under an exclusive contract, that was only reluctantly shared with the British. While the Australians had the dubious honour as a British explosive testing ground, the British had looked at using Churchill in Manitoba. Canada did, however, take American nuclear weapons (the BOMARC) briefly in the 1960s.

Russian and French spies managed also to get important designs, even material, out of the Canadian nuclear effort. And then the Russians and French shared this knowledge with countries like China and Israel.

Until 1965 the Canadian uranium industry was a part of the permanent arms economy, a state capitalist business (Eldorado Nuclear) devoted to making war. This was extremely profitable with uranium selling at $5000 an ounce (when gold was fixed at $35 an ounce).

But by the early 1960s the United States and the USSR had more than enough weapons grade material to destroy the world many times over – to peak at 65,000 atomic warheads in the 1980s (currently reduced to 27,000). The United States terminated its exclusive contract and the Canadian uranium industry entered a crisis.

Canada: The Saudi Arabia of Uranium

The answer by the Canadian government was to promote a commercial nuclear power market, through the aggressive sale of uranium exports for ‘civil’ use in, hopefully, a Canadian reactor, the CANDU by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) – under the cover of independent inspections by both Canada and the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as sanctioned by the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In 1989, Eldorado was privatized (once the Canadian international price fixing cartel of the 1970s was exposed) and merged with Saskatchewan’s Mining Development Corporation (SMDC) to become today’s Cameco, which, with the French uranium mining company Areva (once known appropriately as AMOK) and the private Denison Mines, exports one third of all uranium in the world from Saskatchewan’s northern Athabasca Basin.

AECL also managed to sell 34 reactors to seven countries. Then in 2009 AECL was privatized, sold off to SNC-Lavelin, the Montreal-based international engineering company (recently in the news for its corrupt ties with the dictatorships of Libya and Tunisia).

In the course of building a commercial nuclear energy market, these businesses with active federal support, both politically led trade missions by prime ministers such as Trudeau, Chretien, and Harper, and public money in the form of cheap federal loan guarantees, managed to spread nuclear weapons proliferation to South and East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

In the 1950s, the United States gave the green light to the development of a civil nuclear power market by its ‘Peace For Atoms’ policy. Under the British Commonwealth Colombo economic aid program, Canada successfully sold atomic reactors to India and Pakistan. In 1974 India exploded its first nuclear weapon (‘Smiling Buddha’) – with fissile material from the Canadian reactors. Pakistan, which had just lost Bangladesh, immediately committed itself to a covert nuclear weapons program, drawing on Canadian expertise and materials. In 1998 both countries exploded ‘demonstration’ nuclear weapons in a show of force against each other. But Canada, which had withdrawn from the South Asian market, has resumed sales to both countries in 2009, both of whom have refused to stop production of bomb-making fissile materials.

In East Asia, AECL also sold nuclear reactors to South Korea and Taiwan, both of which were run by military dictatorships. AECL even sold a nuclear reactor to the Argentinean military dictatorship, later dismantled by civilian governments. Then in the late 1980s, unbelievably; Canada sold nuclear reactors to Romania, who could only afford these with a Canadian loan, which had to be refinanced in the 1990s. In 1994, only five years after the Tiananmen massacre, Canada sold CANDU reactors to China with a subsidized federal loan.

In this sorry record of weapons proliferation in the name of ‘peaceful use’, not once did independent Canadian or IAEA inspections manage to deter rogue customers. If there were limits, it was because of American imperialism’s interest to monopolize nuclear power (blocking South Korea and Taiwan from nuclear weapons development) or local class struggles, like Argentina’s, to stop weapons proliferation. In fact, it can be argued that Canada is indirectly responsible for nuclear weapons proliferation through these rogue customers to countries like North Korea.

Making the World Safe for Plutonium

Canada’s uranium record is one of unmitigated disaster from an economic, environmental, and security point of view. Economically, tens of billions of public dollars have been spent for over sixty years to subsidize public and private uranium corporations. AECL, for example, absorbed $21 billion of public investment. Yet it has been sold to SNC-Lavelin for $15 million. Ontario Hydro, and locally energy deficient provinces like New Brunswick, have enormous investments in nuclear generated electricity. Yet, globally, the worlds’ 440 nuclear reactors only generate 5% of total energy. The investment and the returns do not add up – other than in publically subsidized profits for private enterprises.

Environmentally, the export of Canadian uranium contributes to a massive spent nuclear fuel waste problem, with five pounds of radioactive mining waste for every pound of yellowcake produced. This has led to the creation of enormous dry and wet dumps leaching cancer causing materials into northern Canada’s ecology. Meanwhile, at consumption sites for Canadian UF6 gas (produced from yellowcake) - like the US military weapons manufacturing sites, Hanford, Washington and the South Carolina Savannah River complex; it will take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs to fix the environmental side effects of uranium consumption.

In security terms, even when reactors are properly inspected, Canada’s uranium industry leaves a residue of tons of weapons grade fissile material. Not all of this is secure. The IAEA breaches database reports that there have been over 1600 incidents of missing or trafficked fissile material since 1995.

But this ‘industry’ has been promoted by every mainstream political party, the Liberals, the Conservatives, and Canada’s social democrats, the New Democratic Party. It was the Blakeney Saskatchewan NDP that created SMDC and the Calvert NDP government that continued to promote uranium export sales before the current conservative Saskatchewan Party government of Brad Wall’s enthusiastic marketing efforts.

We Need an Exit Strategy

If there is one clear lesson in this story, once a vested capitalist interest has been created, it is extremely hard to end. But we have to end the catastrophic risk of nuclear power in an unstable capitalist world. Examples like Chernobyl and Fukushima show only too clearly what the consequences can be when private interests trump public safety.

If we are going to consciously create a new energy economy to supplement and ultimately replace fossil fuels, we need an exit strategy from nuclear power and a transition to a planned, safe hydrocarbon energy economy based on such sources as geothermal, solar and wind power. This is not a dream. Countries like Denmark, Germany, and Iceland have begun this process.

But to be effective on a global, needs based scale, we will need more than national market efforts or private non-governmental local efforts, however illustratively useful. As the failing examples of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and IAEA inspections show, a true international governance structure based on public ownership, planning, and workers democracy must be created to tackle the uranium trap.

For more information read Paul Mackay, Atomic Accomplice: How Canada Deals in Deadly Deceit (with a foreword by David Suzuki) and Doug Roche’s How We Stopped Loving the Bomb.