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Uranium Mines and Mills Subject to Strict Regulations

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

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.

Nuclear Liability

Why Should Nuclear Operators Have their Liability Limited?

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Under a proposed legal change, Canada’s nuclear plant operators would have their potential liability capped at $1 billion (up from the current $75 million) for nuclear-related damage.  But why have a limit at all?  Why not make them liable for any amount of loss?  Isn’t a limit of $1 billion too soft on those who screw up?

For an answer, let’s look at why liability is ever limited.

Schuldturm debtor prison
Schuldturm debtor’s prison, Nurnberg, Germany (source: Keichwa/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

At one time, if you didn’t pay your debts, then you, your family and your servants could all be enslaved.  Debtors’ prisons existed until the nineteenth century.  Unmanageable debt was a moral failing and a form of criminality.

Even so, many saw that these “solutions” were much too hard on the spouses, children and customers who depended on the debtor’s continued freedom to work, act and spend.

Personal insolvency (or bankruptcy) laws weren’t devised to aid mismanagement or dishonesty.  They exist to let people like you and me continue to live and function if our debts get out of control.  This is in everyone’s interest – even our creditors’, at least in the long run and most of the time.  A debtor who keeps working, restructures his affairs, and gets back on his feet is better for society than one who’s turned into a slave or a prisoner.

Different but related principles are behind the limited liability corporation – the enabling institution of modern economies.  Controlling the extent of liability is the secret to unlocking corporations’ ability to raise capital from stockholders like you and me.  With that capital, they can do the things corporations do.  Like inventing things, buying machinery and creating jobs.

Corporate insolvency and bailouts have the same aim.  An organization that keeps operating and paying employees is, in many cases, far better for society as a whole than one that’s broken up and liquidated.  Good insolvency regimes allow the financially challenged to make whatever payments they can in a prompt, predictable and orderly way, rather than in chaos.

This is far from saying that getting into unmanageable debt and failing to repay it is okay.  It’s not.  But the law can be structured so that borrowers are motivated to be careful and make due efforts to avoid this situation.  As most do.

Canada’s Nuclear Liability Act (NLA) is in the same legal family as incorporation and insolvency laws.  It anticipates difficult situations and sets up sensible rules in advance, so the players can do their jobs in the heat of crisis with less uncertainty and under fewer pressures.

Changes being proposed to the NLA would actually increase the liability limit by an order of magnitude, giving companies more responsibility, not less.  Government and companies support these changes because they would make Canada a party to the international Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC).  The CSC creates an international supplementary fund that can pay compensation beyond what national laws provide.

Like a good insolvency law, the CSC sets up consistent, clear rules for payment, and makes sure that payment will be prompt and orderly.  Like a limited-liability incorporation law, the CSC makes it more practical for companies to raise capital, invest, and create opportunity.

Canada has a great record in nuclear safety.  Our industry and regulators work together every day to make sure we don’t have incidents.  The changes to the NLA are Canada’s steps to an up-to-date legal and financial system that can handle one if ever we do.

Messages

Heather Kleb New CNA Vice President

Heather Kleb, CNA Vice President

If you know the Canadian Nuclear Association’s work in regulatory affairs then you’re probably familiar with Heather Kleb, our Director of Regulatory Affairs.

Today we have a very important announcement which reflects the ongoing evolution of the CNA.

As of October 1st, Heather Kleb has been promoted to the role of Vice President!

Throughout her time as the CNA Director of Regulatory Affairs, Heather’s high caliber work, leadership, and commitment to advocating on behalf of CNA member interests has established her suitability for this senior role.

She consistently demonstrates a high level of professionalism and commitment to the CNA and our members.

Please join us in congratulating Heather on her promotion to Vice President.

CNA2012

CNA2012 Update – Exclusive Workshops

Wednesday Workshops at the
2012 CNA Conference and Trade Show

Kick off your Conference experience with a Wednesday Workshop! Choose an invaluable update on the most relevant regulatory and legislative changes on the horizon, or equip yourself with the tools you need to have a meaningful dialogue with stakeholders about real and perceived risks about Radiation.

Space is limited. Register for either workshop today.

 Come for the Workshop, Stay for the Conference

REGISTER NOW

 CNA Regulatory Affairs Workshop – 2012
Feb 22, 13:00 – 17:00
Westin Hotel (Oak Room)
#CNARegsWksp

The purpose of this year’s Regulatory Affairs Workshop will be to share information on new regulatory developments pertaining to the protection of the environment and, in particular, the protection of water.

Guest speakers will include federal and provincial regulatory officials whose mandate includes the protection of water.  Dr. Patsy Thompson will be discussing proposed improvements to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s regulatory framework for environmental protection under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act.  Beverley Thorpe, of the Credit Valley, Toronto and Region and Central Lake Ontario Source Protection Committee, will be discussing new policy direction for source water protection under Ontario’s Clean Water Act.  Heather McCready will be discussing how Environment Canada’s Environmental Enforcement Directorate is working to minimize threats to the natural environment under the Fisheries Act.

Workshop participants will be provided with an overview of the mandate and legislation that govern these activities and the opportunity to ask questions about the new, and existing, regulatory requirements.

Max. 40 participants

Register Now

_______________________________________

 

Talking about Radiation: “Are We Safe? Can We Trust You?”     
Feb 22, 12:00 – 17:00
Westin Hotel (Quebec Room)
#CNACommsWksp

This workshop, facilitated by Decision Partners, will provide participants with an understanding of radiation science at a lay level, and the principles of strategic risk communications for communicating about this complex topic.  Understanding Risk Communications and explaining health risks associated Radiation was identified as a key learning following events at Fukushima. The workshop will enhance the preparedness of the participants – including industry workers, stakeholders and governments – in explaining types of radiation to people from outside the nuclear industry.

Workshop participants will also hear from Mr. John Roberts and Ms. Andrea Marshall from Aurora Energy Ltd., who will share a case study based on their company’s experience communicating with people in Labrador about radiation and uranium mining.  Participants will leave the workshop with a toolkit of tested communications messages and a better understanding of best practices for engaging stakeholders in a community dialogue.

Max. 40 participants

Working lunch provided

Register Now

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Download the entire Conference Agenda HERE (now includes #hashtags!)

What the #hashtag?
The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages.

Join the conversation on Twitter. Tweet using #cnagm2012 or the session #hashtag found on the Agenda.

Meet the Speakers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you to our SPONSORS

See you in February!

 

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CNA Responds

Assessing the Assessments: Recommendations to Improve the EA Process

On Thursday November 24, Denise Carpenter, President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, addressed the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development to deliver five recommendations to improve the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

The Canadian Nuclear Association has about 100 members working in uranium mining and exploration, fuel processing and electricity generation, and the production and advancement of nuclear medicine.  As may be expected, many of our projects and activities are subject to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.  In fact our Members have completed many Environmental Assessments in the ~15 year period that the Act has been in effect.

Environmental Assessments have become an integral part of how we conduct our business and we have gained considerable insights from carrying them out.  While we believe that Environmental Assessment is a valuable planning tool that leads to improved decision-making, we also believe that there are areas for improvement, particularly regarding process efficiency and predictability.

Our recommended improvements include:

  • the goal of “one-project, one-assessment, by the best-placed regulator”;
  • Environmental Assessments, or EAs, should be effective;
  • EA requirements should be proportional to the risks;
  • EA decisions should be consistent with permitting and authorization decisions; and
  • EA processes and decision-making should be timely.

Regarding the principle of “One-project, One-assessment, by the Best-Placed Regulator,” it is our view that to be truly effective, a project should be subject to only one EA and that that EA should be conducted by the jurisdiction, or regulator with the most comprehensive knowledge of the project or industry – the best-placed regulator.

For most of our industry that would mean the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.  The only exception would be within the province of Saskatchewan, where Canada’s uranium mining industry resides.  While the CNSC is a knowledgeable regulator, one can never underestimate the value of local knowledge, whether it be local community, Aboriginal, or regulatory knowledge.  In either case, our Members would recommend that the agency with the most appropriate authority over a project assume responsibility for the EA, and decision, and that the one assessment satisfy both federal and provincial requirements.

There is also an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of EAs so that Canadians can have confidence that they are fostering environmentally and socially responsible economic activity.  The intent of the Act is to “promote sustainable development and thereby achieve or maintain a healthy environment and healthy economy.”  However, the focus is often on environmental, rather than economic aspects of projects.  Improvements could be achieved through better integration of environmental, social and economic considerations and by increasing the precedent value of EAs.  These steps would help ensure that EAs are fostering the environmentally responsible economic activity that underlies Canadian prosperity.

The scope of EAs should also be proportionate to the environmental risk.  The Act allows for three types of EAs — Screenings, Comprehensive Studies and Review Panels – so that the more likely a project is to cause “significant adverse environmental effects,” the more substantive the process.  But, because of overly-inclusive Law List Regulations, and under-developed Exclusion List Regulations, routine administrative activities, such as approvals made pursuant to a licence – can trigger an EA.

That is because the EA process is triggered for projects involving the listed legal provision without consideration for the extent, or scope of the activity in question.  Under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, the process is triggered whenever a licence is issued, amended or an approval is issued pursuant to a licence.  Such approvals should not trigger an EA when there are no new risks.  The EA scope should instead focus on risks that were not previously addressed.
Known and manageable risks that were previously addressed through EAs and other regulatory processes should not be re-evaluated.  It undermines the earlier process and leads to unnecessary duplication.  This could be prevented by amending the Exclusion List Regulations to exempt minor approvals for existing facilities from another EA and modifying the Act to exempt activities that improve environmental performance.

Re-evaluation should also be avoided in subsequent authorization and permitting processes.  Currently, the Act has no application to permitting, licensing or any of the other authorizations that are required following the EA; that in fact triggered the EA.  As a result, these authorizations are not always consistent with the EA conclusions.  The absence of coordination is particularly apparent at the federal level where an authorization under the Fisheries Act may not be acceptable under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act licensing process.

Ideally, if an EA concludes that a project is unlikely to result in significant adverse environmental effects and the risks addressed by subsequent authorizations were previously addressed, then authorizations should be certain and timely.  To increase certainty, CNA members recommend that proponents be able to opt for the review of permits and other authorizations as early in the EA process as they chose.  Also, Fisheries Act and other authorizations should be maintained as discrete processes, separate from the EA and not delay the EA decision.

Together these recommendations would improve the certainty and timeliness of EA processes.  The duration of EA processes can be long and unpredictable.  According to the Major Projects Management Office, the typical timeframe for approval of major projects in Canada is four years, not counting the studies carried out by the proponent.  In some cases, even minor projects, subject to screenings, can take years.

The Act should be amended to ensure that EAs are conducted according to mandatory timelines, particularly for key steps.  Service agreements outlining timelines for key steps would help ensure that they are undertaken within a reasonable timeframe.  Agreed timelines should also reflect the project complexity and be developed with input from the proponent.

In conclusion, the important points to remember are:

  • once the best-placed regulator is identified, federal and provincial agencies should accept each other’s processes and decisions as equivalent to their own,
  • EA decisions should focus on socio-economic as well as environmental factors as a means of fostering socially responsible economic activity,
  • previously assessed projects and activities should not be re-evaluated
  • authorizations and permits should be consistent with previous assessments
  • a formalized agreement should be established to improve the timeliness of the EA process.