Saturday, July 29, 2006

Uranium mining poses big political risks

VICTORIA - It's got to be frustrating for the government. The geologists in the mines ministry are pretty sure there are no viable uranium deposits in B.C.
But a few mining companies are out there raising money and talking enthusiastically about the potential - even drilling.
And that sends communities into panicky protest mode. No one wants a uranium mine as a neighbour. Many people don't want one anywhere in the province.
Last summer, the Okanagan was the hot spot. Two companies announced they were interested in developing a reserve about 50 kms southeast of Kelowna.
This summer it's the Clearwater area, where a tiny company called International Ranger is doing test drilling after talking up the uranium prospects. The anti-mine groups are already mobilizing. There are other potential reserves in southeast B.C.
It's a headache for the government. The Liberals know uranium mining would be wildly controversial and unite all sorts of potential foes, from environmentalists to people worried about weapons to community activists.
But they don't want to bring in a ban, because that would send the wrong message to the mining companies they've been wooing - successfully - for the last five years.
Former Socred premier Bill Bennett came to a different conclusion back in 1980. That's when the Okanagan project, then championed by Norcen and Ontario Hydro, looked like it was going to go ahead. Bennett saw the protests building and brought in a seven-year moratorium. Bill Vander Zalm let the ban lapse, sparking more demonstrations.
But the woes of the nuclear power industry - remember Chernobyl and Three Mile Island - have meant there's been little interest in uranium in B.C. Until now.
Ontario Hydro has just committed to rebuilding and adding to its nuclear power plants. China is looking to increase its nuclear power production by 600 per cent over the next 14 years. Spiking oil and gas prices mean conventional power plants will be more expensive to operate. And, as proponents note, nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gases.
Nuclear is back, and that means uranium prices are soaring and companies are looking at reserves all over the world, including B.C. The current projects may have a small chance of going ahead, but if prices stay high companies are going to keep looking.
The government doesn't think they'll be successful. In their eagerness to calm fears the usually boosterish Liberals have taken to bad-mouthing B.C.'s uranium potential.
Trust us, they effectively say, There's no need for a ban because no mines are going to be worth developing.
But at the same time they're letting companies explore and raise money from investors who think a mines might prove viable. And maybe one of them will be right.
Why the reluctance to just say no? Mining companies are treating the issue as a symbol of the government's commitment to welcoming the industry. What if there's a great copper reserve that includes a small amount of uranium, the companies ask? Will the copper stay in the ground because uranium mining is banned?
That's the new argument taken by International Ranger, which had been touting the uranium potential until public opposition started. Now it says it’s really interested in potential molybdenum deposits on the property, not the uranium. Since it stressed the huge uranium potential in its earlier statements, the claim isn’t flying.)
And the industry argues that uranium mining is not necessarily risky. Canada and Australia are the two largest producers, and the world's largest mine is two provinces over in Saskatchewan. (Though one critical difference is that it's in the middle of nowhere, not in retirement and resort country.)
The government's position might work, if companies lose interest in B.C. quickly.
But if any of them press on seriously, there will be trouble ahead.
Public pressure for a ban would be enormous, and likely successful.
Companies would then say, what a minute, why did you let us spend money on exploration if you weren't going to allow a mine?
The government is trying a tricky balancing act over a risky issue.
Footnote: Energy Minister Richard Neufeld told the legislature approval of a uranium mine is up to the federal government. Ottawa does regulate uranium mining, but no project can go ahead in B.C. without provincial approval, according to the Mines Act. The company looking at the Clearwater project was ordered by the province to hold an open house this month; it didn't win many converts.

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