Report: World Uranium Symposium

This report is to bring an update from the World Uranium Symposium, happening in Quebec City from April 14-16th. The Symposium’s goal is to address issues arising from the nuclear fuel chain, mining of uranium and the byproducts of the production of uranium. The Symposium plays host to local, national, and international representatives from health, research, industry, education, civil society, policy makers, and indigenous peoples.

Uranium has become a popular topic of conversation in the North. With projects like Matoush Uranium so close to home, people are looking for answers about the industry, not just from a mining perspective, but also what the results from that mining will be. There is a myriad of information circulating about the benefits of uranium production - in particular, that it is a source of cheap/clean power that could play a role in solving energy problems. On the subject of power, the presenters had a number of interesting points to make.

World Nuclear Industry Status Report

The day opened with a presentation by Mycle Schneider, an international energy and nuclear policy consultant and member of the International Energy Advisory Counsel. Schneider’s presentation tells us that the nuclear power industry would have us believe that we are witnessing a rise to prominence of nuclear power. Their argument, that we are seeing a rise in the amount of reactor production. Nations (in particular China) are choosing nuclear power as the primary means of production, and that switch to nuclear power will be necessary to keep up with world power needs; they also argue that it is a clean form of energy.

Schneider warns though, with a closer look at data, this dialogue by the nuclear power industry doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead of a rise in production, we see that the production of reactors and new power plants peaked in the early 80’s and has since fallen off significantly. What about the rise in reactor production touted by the industry? It turns out, by beginning their measurements at a historical low in reactor production (2005), they are simply manipulating date ranges to make it appear as though there is a rise in reactor production. In reality, when accounting for the increase from 2005 in reactor production, we still have a net aging in the global infrastructure of nuclear power.

Far from a rise to prominence, the picture painted by the status report is that production of reactors is slowing; many construction projects are being cancelled or delayed indefinitely -some as long as 40 years. The result from this aging of nuclear power infrastructure is an escalation of costs. As Schneider points out, the 20 largest European utilities have lost over a trillion dollars and that EDF, a large producer of nuclear energy in France, has seen stock values plunge by 70%.

The concern is, with the financial health of nuclear energy companies in disarray, where will the responsibility of maintaining these facilities lie? These facilities need large numbers of staff (which are often let go during tough financial times) in order to be maintained when integrity of structures becomes compromised. Is there a worry that, as costs continue to escalate and profits downturn, nuclear energy producers won’t be able to afford to keep their facilities safe? Should we be worried, as the global age of reactors continue to rise, that we are placing our trust in technology nearly three decades old?

The take home message of the presentation was simple: we are seeing a shift away from nuclear energy and probably traditional utilities in general. When we look to renewable modes of energy production, such as wind and solar, we aren’t seeing the chaotic fluctuations in cost in the maintenance of infrastructure, environmental impact, or the ability to produce energy. To listen to a full copy of the presentation, I invite you to listen to the link.

Impacts of the Fukushima Catastrophe: 4 Years Later

So, if nuclear energy is not necessarily cheaper to produce, what could be said of the health impacts of that energy production? This brings me to a really interesting workshop by Arnie Gundersen, an international specialist on nuclear safety and former nuclear industry senior vice president, and Katsumi Furistu, an expert on radiation and genetics.

What is clear from the presentation is that the effects of the Fukushima meltdown were substantial, with radioactive materials on the island of Japan spreading possibly as far as Tokyo. Beyond the spread of nuclear material, handling by the government was problematic. Gundersen noted that, immediately after the disaster, there was downplaying by the media concerning the extent of danger presented from radioactive material and the nature of the meltdown within the facility.

Speaking to the cost of the cleanup, initial estimates were far too low Gundersen noted; initial estimates were in the 100 billion dollar range. In reality, they are probably looking at cleanup costs of 500 billion dollars and up. This is all speculative though, as nuclear waste is still bleeding out of the Fukushima site; water is still able to penetrate into the core. This seeping out of nuclear waste is leading a measurable rise in radioactivity in the Pacific Ocean.

It’s not just the oceans that are affected though, it is likely much of the population of Japan. Studies examining dust in Japanese homes and on the soles of children’s shoes have shown significantly more radiation in Japanese dust as compared to North America. This isn’t just regular radioactive material we find in dirt normally, but rather products of the nuclear fuel chain. This is focusing on areas that are deemed safe and doesn’t begin to touch on the 4 million people being allowed back into contaminated zones due to population density.

Despite all the negative impacts of Fukushima, Gundersen notes that we were probably lucky at the end of the day; the meltdown happened when a large number of staff were on site. As a result, they had the resources to mitigate the disaster as much as they could. Gundersen made a point to say that this could have been a meltdown of 14 reactors, should the disaster have occurred at night, as compared to the 3 reactors that had melted down. The presentations for this workshop were excellent and I definitely recommend listening to them below.

Long Term Storage of Spent Fuel

The final workshop that I attended discussed the long-term storage of nuclear fuel and historically how that has been handled. As many of you know, once a reactor has used nuclear fuel, that fuel is going to remain in a highly radioactive state for millions of years. Initially, fuel is designated as ‘high level waste’, it is stored and closely monitored until reaching ‘acceptable levels’ of radioactivity, at which point it is downgraded to ‘low level waste’.

The plan, as explained by Brennain Lloyd, Director of Northwatch –a group of environmental activists – and by Diane D’Arrigo, the director of the Radioactive Waste Project with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, has always been that we are going to store this waste underground. That, once waste has been downgraded from ‘high level waste’ to ‘low level waste’(which is by no means a safe substance) they would be placed within a multi-barriered container indefinitely.

Much of this presentation discussed and criticized this ‘multi-barrier storage’ concept. So what is the multi-barrier concept? Basically, spent fuel would be stored in a container of metal, then would have another metal over-pack, then a layer of clay like substance, and finally be encased in some geological formation (a mountain for example). As Lloyd and D’Arrigo explain, this plan has never come to proper fruition and has a whole host of problems. For example, initial engineering of the clay barrier underestimated heat levels, leading to dry-out, and the clay no longer properly block emissions when it dries out.

Then there’s the United States plan to place their fuel within the Yucca Mountain formations. This had been the main idea for the US storage of spent nuclear fuel, but it wasn’t until recently, when the Obama administration had stepped in, that plans for this storage have been possibly scrapped but most likely delayed (there are those who still actively pursue it). The Yucca Mountains ended up being a bad location for a number of reasons, such as being an active volcanic zone, prone to earthquakes, and not having the hydrology to support it. It is scary to think, despite all these pitfalls, that this zone was strongly considered and is still being pursued.

So where does this leave the state of spent fuel storage? As D’Arrigo and Lloyd explain, there are currently no active underground storage sites. A few have been built, but have been closed for not adequately being able to contain the nuclear waste. The closest we have to a long-term underground storage is a proposal put forth by Sweden, which was sent back for further review, as they weren’t able to make a strong case that the container would not corrode.

The takeaway of this presentation is that we do not yet have, despite it being a necessary part of the nuclear power system, a strategy for storing nuclear waste long term. After 30 years of trying, long-term underground storage does not appear to be a viable strategy. So, the alternative D’Arrigo and Lloyd suggest, is that we need to look at a much more intensive system of monitoring and will probably be maintaining these containers indefinitely; it is not going to be a ‘store it and leave it’ scenario. The other suggestion, stop producing new nuclear waste as it will further compound a problem that we have no good solution for.

Presentations from Shawn Iserhoff, Joshua Iserhoff, and Amy Linton

 One of the big highlights of this symposium was being able to hear our own Shawn Iserhoff, Joshua Iserhoff, and Amy Linton speak at this event. It was encouraging to see so many people from the Cree Nation and listen to them voice their concerns about uranium development within Eeyou Istchee.

Shawn Iserhoff’s presentation was part of a plenary session, which included native speakers from Mongolia, Australia, and Cambodia. The topics in this plenary were centered on how the uranium industry has impacted people from all over the world and their stories of resistance against this industry.

Shawn Iserhoff explained that the Cree Nation did not initially oppose uranium development within the territory, in fact, they were eager to hear about the benefits it could bring to the region. After research, it became clear that there were risks associated with uranium development and that industry was not being forthcoming in their description of that risk. Shawn criticized industry appreciation of risk as “they want to treat this project like it is any other, but we know it is not…the careless disposal of waste could be devastating”.

Joshua Iserhoff, Youth Grand Chief of the Cree Nation, also spoke at the event, supported by many Youth standing on stage with him, and discussed their walk in protest of uranium development in Eeyou Istchee. He explained that they had walked for 23 days, starting in Mistissini and ending in Quebec City, where they met with various representatives from parliament; their journey had been 857 KM in total.

The Youth Grand Chief explained the experiences he had, walking with the Youth and the culture that they had shared. The common theme was that they all lived off the land, hunted and trapped with their parents and grandparents. The Youth Grand Chief explained that “to destroy the land, to contaminate the water, would be the end of our lives. It was the livelihood of our ancestors and is the livelihood of our people”. The message at the end was clear “we do not want uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee”.

Amy Linton, the Youth Chief of Mistissini, spoke with Joshua Iserhoff, explaining why so many youth had attended the World Uranium Symposium. Linton explained that they had attended the event to learn and to bring this information home with them. She also spoke as a mother, explaining that she did not want her children to grow up in a land where animals, the water and land were contaminated by uranium mining. To listen to the full speeches, please click the link below.

Closing Remarks by Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come

The world Uranium Symposium was closed with a speech from our Grand Chief, Dr. Matthew Coon Come. The Grand Chief started his speech by saying how proud he was of our youth and their showing at the symposium. He also thanked the other presenters at the symposium for their insight and information.

The Grand Chief explained that uranium is not an issue with a few key stakeholders, that is a global issue and perhaps the first truly global threat. He explained that we could see how resonant this issue is with the global community, that this is evident in the truly global nature of the audience attending the symposium. He explained that the scale of the uranium issue also comes the responsibility to be environmentally conscious global citizens.

The Grand Chief opened and closed the symposium on a common theme and that was that this is just the beginning of forging new alliances, constructing better nuclear policy and safeguarding a better future for our children. He spoke for a future where we would not have to worry about contaminated waters and lands, where would not have to fear of nuclear war.

To hear the full speech, we invite you to listen to the recording below.