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Uranium Mines and Mills Subject to Strict Regulations

A radiation technician

A radiation technician checking to make sure radiation levels are below regulatory limits.

Canada’s uranium mining sector is a heavily regulated industry, monitored closely by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to ensure the safety of workers, the environment, and the public.

Every aspect of uranium mining and milling is subject to licensing from the CNSC to ensure that they are operated in accordance with international standards. According to the CNSC website, “The CNSC’s licensing process for uranium mines and mills follows the stages laid out in the Uranium Mines and Mills Regulations, proceeding progressively through site preparation and construction, operating, decommissioning, and abandonment (or release from licensing) phases.”

Here’s a breakdown of the safety measures at each phase.

Site preparation and construction

Before construction of uranium mining or milling operations, site owners or operators must take samples from the nearby soil, water, air, flora, and fauna to document the state of the environment before mining begins. During construction and operation, the operators continue to take samples regularly and check them against original conditions, to ensure that the environment is being protected.

Results of this monitoring are submitted to federal and provincial regulatory authorities for review. Testing by independent agencies of water bodies downstream from uranium operations in northern Saskatchewan demonstrate that there have been no effects on water quality, while local wild foods, such as moose, fish, and berries, continue to be safe to eat.

Mining and milling operations

All uranium mining and milling operations have formal safety and radiation-protection programs and codes of practice, to ensure that workers and the public are safe. These programs require that radiation protection be considered in the design of all facilities and operating procedures. They also provide for systematic monitoring of radiation in work areas, and track the exposures of individual workers, through a combination of monitoring devices and health testing.

water sample

A field technician collecting a water sample from a lake downstream of a uranium mine.

Rigorous safety practices are not limited to the handling of uranium ore and concentrate. Even waste rock from mining operations, which contains very low concentrations of uranium and other metals, is managed to protect the environment. Waste rock is stored on engineered pads and, where necessary, runoff water is collected and treated to remove contaminants before it is released to the environment. Waste rock management facilities are monitored as part of the extensive environmental monitoring program in place at each operating site, to ensure that any issues are identified and addressed.

Similarly, after milling has removed uranium from ore, what is left is called “tailings”, which also contains low levels of matter that could remain radioactive for long periods. Environmental modelling shows that this matter can be managed and secured safely. In Canada, mill operators place the leftover material in tailings facilities, and cover them with water. The active tailings facilities at all of Canada’s uranium mills are state-of-the-art facilities built into large, mined-out ore pits. While the mill is active, operators collect groundwater from a series of wells around the facility. By the time operations cease, the tailings will have become a solid, dense mass. Groundwater will flow around the consolidated tailings, rather than through them, to minimize environmental impact. The facilities are designed to contain the material securely for thousands of years.

All water used in uranium mining and milling processes is treated to remove contaminants before it is released into the environment.

Transportation

Uranium concentrate is safely transported by road, rail, or sea in conventional shipping containers. Handling precautions applied to other potentially hazardous industrial chemicals are sufficient to protect people and the environment. In the event of an accidental spill, the material would be collected by trained personnel and delivered to a licensed facility for repackaging; there would be no significant effect on people or the environment. The CNSC inspects and reviews the transportation of uranium from mining and milling operations to ensure the safety of workers and the public.

Shutdown and decommissioning

waste rock

Trucks hauling uranium ore and waste rock to the surface.

Though decommissioning takes place at the end of the cycle, it is planned and financed from the beginning. “The CNSC requires a licensee to have a financial guarantee in place during all phases of the facility’s lifecycle to cover the cost of decommissioning,” according to the CNSC. “This ensures that decommissioning is included in planning at all stages in a facility’s lifecycle. Decommissioning and reclamation plans for mines and mills must be assessed and approved by the CNSC before work can proceed.”All uranium mining and milling operations must eventually be decommissioned. During this phase, the operators remove all structures, secure and landscape the tailings and waste-rock facilities, fill or flood the open pits, and close the mines, backfilling them with concrete caps. After the physical decommissioning is complete, the sites are subject to an extended monitoring period to ensure that the environment is protected.

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U.N. does not Expect Cancer Increase due to Fukushima Radiation

Thyroid scanWith little media coverage and even less fanfare, the United Nations released a report in April that dispelled one of the most popular myths regarding the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said in a report it did not expect “significant changes” in future cancer rates that could be attributed to radiation exposure from the reactor meltdowns.

“The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants,” the report concluded.

While the report clears radiation from negative health impacts, it noted that those in the areas affected by the meltdown were not immune to other health impacts.

“The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation,” it said.

“Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported.”

So fear about the exposure to radiation was more of a health problem than radiation exposure itself.

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Nuclear Helping in the Fight Against Ebola

A nuclear-derived technology which allows for early detection of the Ebola virus has been developed by the IAEA and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

The technology, known as Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR), can detect Ebola within a few hours, compared to other technologies which take several days.

RT-PCR will be made available to Sierra Leone, following a UN Security Council appeal, and support is expected to extend to Liberia and Guinea as well.

Early diagnosis of Ebola can significantly increase victims’ chances of survival, while limiting the spread of the disease by isolating victims and treating them earlier.

The full story is available on the IAEA website.

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By the Numbers: 3,000!

Twitter

by Romeo St. Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

In baseball, having 3,000 career hits is almost a guarantee to entry into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

On Twitter, having 3,000 followers won’t get you into any Hall of Fame, but it is a milestone worth celebrating.

Having just reached 3,000, we would like to thank our followers and all those who retweet our tweets, spreading the good word about nuclear energy.

Part of the reason for a recent rise in new followers is our commitment to tweet what the people want.

By using social media tools, we have identified the themes that are popular with our followers and the best time of day to reach them.

At the moment, stories about nuclear power’s contribution to reducing GHGs, the growing number of environmentalists embracing nuclear and the fallout from Germany’s decision to close nuclear plants are very popular with our followers and are shared the most.

The CNA will continue to use Twitter to leverage more of its original brand journalism content and blogs on these themes and others. Expect more infographics in the future too.

Until we tweet again.

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Fukushima Fish Safe to Eat

Albacore Tuna

Albacore tuna.

You may have heard media reports about concerns regarding fish contaminated by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown migrating to the North American west coast.

The truth is, scientists in British Columbia have found no noticeable radiation in fish on Canada’s west coast as a result of Fukushima and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has found no cause for concern but continues to monitor the situation.

“The radiation levels we can attribute to Fukushima are essentially not visible,” Simon Fraser University nuclear scientist Kris Starosta recently told Global News.

“What I do see is effects from the weapons tests and natural radiation. That has been there before Fukushima.”

Even North American studies that have found some contamination related to Fukushima has found those levels to be negligible.

A study this year by Oregon State University made a comparison that put some perspective on the fish fear factor.

The researchers found that while Albacore tuna caught off the coast of Oregon had elevated levels of radiation as a result of Fukushima, the increase was so minute that you would have to 700,000 pounds of the fish with the highest radiation levels just to get the same dosage as you would going about your day-to-day life over a year.

“A year of eating albacore with these cesium traces is about the same dose of radiation as you get from spending 23 seconds in a stuffy basement from radon gas, or sleeping next to your spouse for 40 nights from the natural potassium-40 in their body,” Delvan Neville, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University and lead author on the study, said in a press release.

“It’s just not much at all.”

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CNA Members Lead the Way in Aboriginal Relations

CCAB logo

Four CNA members were among 40 companies recently recognized by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) for Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) for 2014.

The PAR program is the only corporate assurance program in the world with an emphasis on Aboriginal relations.

Bruce Power achieved the highest possible certification with Gold Standing, becoming one of only 12 companies in Canada to receive the designation. The gold designation indicates that certified companies are good business partners; great places to work, and are committed to prosperity in Aboriginal communities.

Of the new companies, SaskPower received certification with Silver standing (one of just three companies in Canada to receive that ranking), while Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP and Hatch joined at the Committed Level.

The PAR program supports improvement and best practices in Aboriginal relations. The designation is made by a jury of Aboriginal business people who examine employment, community investment, business development, and community engagement based on company reports, on-site visits and interviews with Aboriginal stakeholders.

The names of the companies were announced at the CCAB’s 12th Annual Vancouver Gala on September 25, 2014 at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver.