30 Jan 2012: Report

A Vast Canadian Wilderness
Poised for a Uranium Boom

Canada’s Nunavut Territory is the largest undisturbed wilderness in the Northern Hemisphere. It also contains large deposits of uranium, generating intense interest from mining companies and raising concerns that a mining boom could harm the caribou at the center of Inuit life.

by ed struzik

Until her semi-nomadic family moved into the tiny Inuit community of Baker Lake in the 1950s, Joan Scottie never knew there was a wider world beyond her own on the tundra of the Nunavut Territory in the Canadian Arctic. She didn’t see the inside of a school until she was a teenager and didn’t venture south until she was an adult.

But that all changed in 1978, when a Soviet satellite carrying 100 pounds of enriched uranium for an onboard nuclear reactor crashed into the middle of the wilderness she knew so well, resulting in a military search that recovered some of the radioactive debris. Everything that Scottie learned about uranium after that convinced her she wanted nothing to do with a mineral that had the potential to cause such serious health problems or be used for military purposes.

So when a German mining company showed up at Baker Lake ten years later with a plan to extract uranium from an area that included a key caribou calving ground, Scottie and her Inuit neighbors weighed the
The Canadian government sees Arctic mining as a cornerstone of the country’s economic future.
environmental implications against the economic advantages and voted emphatically to say “No.” The German company eventually dropped its plans.

Now, however, the Inuit grandmother of two finds herself once again on the front lines of a grassroots movement trying to block several new companies from mining uranium from the same lodes near Baker Lake. And this time the playing field has changed.

The Canadian government has made it clear that Arctic mining will be one of the cornerstones of the country’s economic future. It is encouraging mining companies to exploit the deposits of gold, silver, zinc, diamonds, uranium and other minerals and metals found in abundance in the vast areas of the enormous Nunavut Territory, as well as the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

In spite of the global recession of 2008 and the March 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, which caused some countries to reconsider nuclear power, uranium exploration is proceeding at a record pace in this part of the world. In Scottie’s backyard, the French mining giant, Areva — partnering with JCU Exploration of Canada and the DAEWOO Corporation of Korea — is actively exploring a major uranium lode at Kiggavik, the site of the former planned German mine, 50 miles west of Baker Lake. Other companies also are considering building mines in the surrounding tundra. In the territory of Nunavut alone, more than $322 million was spent on exploration for uranium and various metals and diamonds in 2011, up from $189 million in 2009.

Click to enlarge
Nunavut Canada

Wikipedia/Yale Environment 360
Nunavut Territory, located in northern Canada, where several companies are looking to mine uranium.
The Inuit are split on the wisdom of large-scale uranium mining in their territory, with some saying their communities desperately need the economic development, while others are concerned about the environmental fallout from the industry. With a population of just 30,000 mostly Inuit people living in a territory the size of Western Europe, Nunavut — which contains a sizeable part of mainland Canada as well as most of the country’s Arctic Archipelago, extending nearly to the North Pole — remains the largest undisturbed wilderness in the northern hemisphere. Though some mining roads exist, not a single road connects its 25 communities. As a result, some of the biggest caribou herds in the world — ranging in size from 65,000 to more than 400,000 — migrate freely.

Scottie, other Inuit, environmental groups, some scientists, and the country’s environmental agency, Environment Canada, are concerned that a mining boom in parts of Nunavut will interfere with the calving and migration of caribou, which already are experiencing stress from a warming Arctic climate. These groups also worry about contamination from uranium mining, especially given the history in northern Canada of mining companies abandoning their mines and performing little, if any, environmental cleanup.

“What happened in the past is a concern,” says Ramsey Hart, who works for Mining Watch, an environmental watchdog based in Ottawa. “With uranium especially, we’ve seen prices rise and fall dramatically in relatively short periods of time. What happens to these open pit mines and roads and tailings if the mines are no longer economically viable? And what happens to caribou? Their numbers in the Arctic are already down dramatically.”

Last year, seven companies searching for uranium held 554 active leases to explore on the Beverly caribou herd's traditional calving ground. Only a fraction of these projects will be move forward. But experts say that by 2017, eight mines may begin production in the Kitikmeot region, which encompasses the northwest portion of mainland Nunavut.

Mining companies vow to take steps to minimize disturbance of Nunavut’s caribou herds and say that the development of a uranium mining industry will bring jobs and prosperity to this undeveloped region. Areva — which
The rapidly growing Inuit population in Nunavut is in desperate need of jobs.
for its Kiggavik project is proposing one underground mine and four open-pit mines, as well as roads and a port to ship out concentrated uranium — says the project would create at least 400 jobs and would have an annual payroll of $200 million for nearly two decades. Areva spokesman Barry McCallum told The Canadian Press that the company’s mill to produce uranium concentrate could also attract other uranium mining companies to the region.

Tom Hoefer, the executive director of an industry group, the Chamber of Mines, has suggested that all this new interest in Nunavut will require the building of 400 miles of new roads and will lead to the revival of previously shelved mining projects. “Surely this presents a tremendous opportunity for local arrangements to construct, to maintain and to operate this infrastructure,” Hoefer said at a trade show in Nunavut in September.

Some Inuit enthusiastically support mining, especially now that the settlement of aboriginal land claims gives the Inuit the mineral rights to 10 percent of the 350,000 square kilometers of land they were given title to. The rapidly growing population is in desperate need of jobs, and the Canadian government, the Nunavut government, and the Inuit-owned corporations set up to manage the land-claims assets believe mining could address that need, as well as bring in revenues to native corporations. The Nunavut Impact Review Board is now studying the Kiggavik project, which is the farthest advanced of any of the proposed uranium mines in Nunavut.

The history of mining in Nunavut has been a short and disjointed one, thanks largely to high costs of fuel and transportation and the fact that there are scarcely any roads in the regions. There is just one mine — the Meadowbank gold mine near Baker Lake — currently operating in Nunavut territory.

Canada is the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, with three of the top ten mines in the world located in northern Saskatchewan near the Nunavut border. And uranium isn’t the only hot commodity in the Arctic; soaring gold prices are leading to a so-called “new gold rush” in the Yukon, where activity in 2011 was unprecedented in scope.

The scramble for uranium is a more complex story. No one knows where the uranium will go when and if it’s extracted. The industry is notoriously guarded about releasing such information. But most experts believe that
What happens if they get their roads, their open-pit mines, their shipping ports?’ asks one Inuit elder.
China and several European countries that rely heavily on nuclear power — most notably France, home of Areva — will eventually drive up prices, which are now near five-year lows.

Looming over the current debate about mining in the Arctic is the legacy of past mineral extraction. The Canadian government is currently on the hook for an estimated $4.5 billion to clean up dozens of uranium, gold, sliver, and zinc mines abandoned in the northern territories, including two in Nunavut.

One of those mines, Eldorado Mining and Refining, was a government-run corporation that dumped some of the more than 750,000 tons of radioactive tailings from uranium mining into the pristine waters of Great Bear Lake. Located in the Northwest Territories just west of the Nunavut border, Great Bear is the third-largest lake in North America and the seventh largest in the world. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent cleaning up that site and on compensating aboriginal people whose health may have been affected by the contamination.

While the government of Canada has introduced legislation to ensure that at least some of the costs associated with reclamation are accounted for in future developments, critics believe there are still serious risks.

For Inuit like Scottie and the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization, the plight of caribou — which have been central to the Inuit’s subsistence culture — lies at the heart of the issue. Caribou numbers were down dramatically in some places in the Arctic in recent years thanks largely to cyclical fluctuations that occur naturally. But a rapidly warming climate also appears to be taking a toll. Concerned about several issues — including mining’s impact on caribou — Environment Canada wrote to the Nunavut Impact Review Board about the Kiggavik project: “Environment Canada is of the opinion that there is the potential for the project to cause significant adverse environmental impacts.”

MORE FROM YALE e360

A Troubling Decline in the
Caribou Herds of the Arctic

A Troubling Decline in the Caribou Herds of the Arctic
Across the Far North, populations of caribou — an indispensable source of food and clothing for indigenous people — are in steep decline, Ed Struzik writes. Scientists point to rising temperatures and a resource-development boom as the prime culprits.
READ MORE
Scientists like Don Russell — a former Environment Canada researcher who now heads up CARMA, an international network that shares research data and information on caribou — said that new mining and energy development, coupled with regional climate change and more efficient hunting techniques used by the Inuit, may cause further caribou declines. That’s because almost everything scientists have learned over the past three decades suggests that these animals need space, especially when they’re calving.

In spite of the high stakes both for the economy and for the environment, neither the mainstream Canadian media, nor most environmental organizations, have paid much attention to an issue that promises to rewrite the future history of the Arctic.

“No one but us hunters and trappers are talking about what this all means to caribou and other Arctic animals,” says Scottie. “We already have one mine. Maybe another mine won’t hurt. But there are a lot of other companies up here who have big plans as well. What happens if they get their roads, their open mine pits, and their shipping ports. What happens then?”

Correction, January 31, 2012: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story incorrectly reported that more than $322 million was spent on uranium exploration in Nunavut Territory in 2011. That figure also includes exploration costs for gold, iron, diamonds, lead, zinc and copper.

POSTED ON 30 Jan 2012 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Urbanization Antarctica and the Arctic North America 

COMMENTS


It's a complex world we live in. Notable scientist and founder of the elegant Gaia theory that the earth is a self-regulating organism, Dr. James Lovelock has concluded that “There is no sensible alternative to nuclear power if we are to sustain civilization. We need emission-free energy sources immediately, and there is no serious contender to nuclear fission. We have little time left in which to install a reliable and secure supply of electricity. The important and overriding consideration is time; we have nuclear power now, and new nuclear building should be started immediately. All of the alternatives, including fusion energy, require decades of development before they can be employed on a scale that would significantly reduce emissions.”

Let's not be too quick to dismiss uranium as an important energy source. It holds significant potential to help the Arctic both directly as a job and business creator for Nunavummiut, and as an alternative to GHG-producing energy that contributes to Arctic climate change.

Posted by Tom Hoefer on 30 Jan 2012


A fine point perhaps Ed, But your Nunavut uranium exploration statistics are not quite correct. Natural Resources Canada did report that more than $322 million was spent on exploration in 2011, but it was spent on exploring for gold, iron, diamonds, zinc, lead and copper. Uranium was not the main focus. Readers can visit our website for more information at: www.miningnorth.com.

Posted by Tom Hoefer on 30 Jan 2012


Some day the earth will weep, she will beg for her life, she will cry with tears of blood. You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die, and when she dies, you will die too.

Wherever you are there once was a forest. Plant & protect Danny's trees for life. Trees are the lungs of the earth.

Posted by Bette M. on 31 Jan 2012


This is the old story again: nature vs man's greed.

Posted by Muriel Servaege on 31 Jan 2012


Nature on any scale is always a complex and robust system that does not lend itself to modeling. Rarely does any change result in the destruction of the system, it however always results in the development of a new balance within the system. The models always have constraints and regularly break down.

I doubt if humans and science will destroy the world and certainly they will not make it uninhabitable within the next hundred years as I have heard. We need to approach development with logic and caution not with scare tactics and stupid statements dressed up as science.

We are already dropping the term 'global warming' because evidence seems to be contradicting it and we are now changing to 'climate change'. The only part that stays the same is the part where we are supposed to blame it on humananity. I suspect if left to themselves without any humans in the entire region the caribou populations will fluctuate and so will the climate.

Lets stop wasting our money blaming each other for everything and instead solve the problems such as nuclear waste disposal, actual pollution from industry, safe food production, etc.

Posted by Don Schieman on 31 Jan 2012


Some people are making energy and money from using solar panels that they make. Some inidgenous people groups, tribes and individual, and communities are making their own solar panels on buildings, homes, already developed fields and lands. They use the energy produced for their own use and to get paid for the extra energy sent back to the electric or energy companies. BUILDING LOTS OF SOLAR PANES equals HAVING LOTS OF EMPLOYMENT , AND GOOD EMPLOYMENT -- WHEN BUILT SO THAT IT DOES NOT HURT THE PEOPLE, AND DOES NOT HURT THE EARTH AND ALL THAT LIVES THERE.

Please forget about uranium and nuclear energy plants. The indegenous people -- for example the dine (or Navajo) have already suffered from uranium mines. In addition there is harm done to the men, women, and children, the earth and all that lives -- due to the nuclear power plants -- in Pennsylvania in the 1970-1980's, in Nebraska (unknown yet), in Chernoble, Ukraine, in Japan.

Everywhere possible men, women, and children are working to safely close down nuclear power plants -- and use solar and wind, and small hydo for energy and electicity. USE AN ALTERNATIVE ENERGY THAT DOES NOT HURT THE EARTH AND ALL THAT LIVES, FORGET THE URANIUM, PLUTONIUM, AND THE NUCLEAR -- FOR NOW.

Posted by Ruth on 31 Jan 2012


This is disgusting.

Posted by Rock The Reactors on 02 Feb 2012


Someone needs to do a lifecycle analysis on the carbon emissions from such a remote and low grade mine as Kiggavik. Open pit mining has some of the highest carbon emissions for any mine, and road building and shipping the stuff all the way to China or Europe probably doesn't help any. With a conventional grade ore, carbon emissions from nuclear are in range of 66 g CO2/kWh (or about 80% more than onshore wind, biogas, and hydro on a life cycle basis).

At Kiggavik, they are proposing to dig under a lake to get a small sample of higher grade ore, and strip mine everything around it to achieve a modest average of 0.24 percent. This whole proposal has little to do with uranium, it just doesn't make sense, it has far more to do with road building and opening up the region to development (and speculation from penny stock companies and fly by night operators on the Toronto stock exchange … each hoping to leverage their leases once the Kiggavik proposal goes through). Baker Lake will see some jobs, but the majority of the money from these projects will be made elsewhere, and before a single ounce of ore is removed from the region. The main legacy of these projects for local residents will be rent payments during the operation of the mine, and then lasting environmental consequences (in this case, lots of holes in the ground, speculators promising future jobs and dividends, and long-term clean up operations lasting generations near vital freshwater sources such as the Thelon River and it's tributaries).

Posted by EL on 03 Feb 2012


So how did Canada get to be major environmental villain, when it previously seemed to be environmentally benign?

Posted by TRB on 11 Feb 2012


"Notable scientist and founder of the elegant Gaia theory that the earth is a self-regulating organism, Dr. James Lovelock has concluded that “There is no sensible alternative to nuclear power if we are to sustain civilization..."

The Gaia theory has been totally disproven. An excellent review of this can be found in this documentary by Adam Curtis.

http://vimeo.com/29875053

Posted by Laura Tattoo on 16 Feb 2012


Steve Salt,Thanks for your reply. You ask But let me let me ask you of the last time you heard an iatorpmnt environmental matter make news headlines or the ears of the Canadian public after an environmental assessment and public hearing, especially on a matter so hotly lobbied by a very invested group? OK. Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Backed by Imperial Oil and a number of O&G interests. There have been a wide range of hearings on the issue technical, environmental etc. Sierra Club, Pembina Institute etc have intervened and appeared in local info workshops and public townhalls etc. Google it if you are unfamiliar with the project. Lots of coverage.

My involvement? Actually, I corresponded with a prominent national columnist who wrote about many of the issues (subsidies, use of the gas at the oilsands etc) related to it in a number of columns. If DD wants to undertake a hunger strike on her own, go ahead. What I object to is using her position as a council member of the GPC and the party's active support of this type of effort. There's no place for it within a political party. As for my other thoughts on this, and in reply to Ant Bee, I have replied to her comments and a subsequent one at Torontoist.

Posted by Rana on 02 Mar 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
ed struzikABOUT THE AUTHOR
Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for three decades. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about a decline in caribou herds of the Arctic and about a controversial plan to kill wolves in Alberta.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Mining Showdown in Andes
Over Unique Páramo Lands

High-altitude neotropical ecosystems known as páramos are increasingly at risk in Colombia and elsewhere in South America as major mining companies seek to exploit rich deposits of gold and other minerals. Such projects, scientists warn, could have serious impacts on critical water supplies.
READ MORE

Scientists Focus on Polar Waters
As Threat of Acidification Grows

A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.
READ MORE

Northern Mystery: Why Are
Birds of the Arctic in Decline?

With some species of Arctic birds experiencing steep drops in population and their prey also undergoing marked shifts, scientists are working to understand what role climate change is playing in these unfolding ecological transformations.
READ MORE

A Scarcity of Rare Metals Is
Hindering Green Technologies

A shortage of "rare earth" metals, used in everything from electric car batteries to solar panels to wind turbines, is hampering the growth of renewable energy technologies. Researchers are now working to find alternatives to these critical elements or better ways to recycle them.
READ MORE

China’s New Arctic Presence
Signals Future Development

China’s recent admission to the Arctic Council under observer status reflects a new reality: the world’s economic powers now regard development of natural resources and commerce in an increasingly ice-free Arctic as a top priority.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Electric Power Rights of Way:
A New Frontier for Conservation

by richard conniff
Often mowed and doused with herbicides, power transmission lines have long been a bane for environmentalists. But that’s changing, as some utilities are starting to manage these areas as potentially valuable corridors for threatened wildlife.
READ MORE

With the Boom in Oil and Gas,
Pipelines Proliferate in the U.S.

by peter moskowitz
The rise of U.S. oil and gas production has spurred a dramatic expansion of the nation's pipeline infrastructure. As the lines reach into new communities and affect more property owners, concerns over the environmental impacts are growing.
READ MORE

How Norway and Russia Made
A Cod Fishery Live and Thrive

by john waldman
The prime cod fishing grounds of North America have been depleted or wiped out by overfishing and poor management. But in Arctic waters, Norway and Russia are working cooperatively to sustain a highly productive — and profitable — cod fishery.
READ MORE

A New Frontier for Fracking:
Drilling Near the Arctic Circle

by ed struzik
Hydraulic fracturing is about to move into the Canadian Arctic, with companies exploring the region's rich shale oil deposits. But many indigenous people and conservationists have serious concerns about the impact of fracking in more fragile northern environments.
READ MORE

Africa’s Vultures Threatened
By An Assault on All Fronts

by madeline bodin
Vultures are being killed on an unprecedented scale across Africa, with the latest slaughter perpetrated by elephant poachers who poison the scavenging birds so they won’t give away the location of their activities.
READ MORE

As Small Hydropower Expands,
So Does Caution on Its Impacts

by dave levitan
Small hydropower projects have the potential to bring electricity to millions of people now living off the grid. But experts warn that planners must carefully consider the cumulative effects of constructing too many small dams in a single watershed.
READ MORE

Why Restoring Wetlands
Is More Critical Than Ever

by bruce stutz
Along the Delaware River estuary, efforts are underway to restore wetlands lost due to centuries of human activity. With sea levels rising, coastal communities there and and elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe are realizing the value of wetlands as important buffers against flooding and tidal surges.
READ MORE

Primate Rights vs Research:
Battle in Colombian Rainforest

by chris kraul
A Colombian conservationist has been locked in a contentious legal fight against a leading researcher who uses wild monkeys in his search for a malaria vaccine. A recent court decision that banned the practice is seen as a victory in efforts to restrict the use of monkeys in medical research.
READ MORE

Scientists Look for Causes of
Baffling Die-Off of Sea Stars

by eric wagner
Sea stars on both coasts of North America are dying en masse from a disease that kills them in a matter of days. Researchers are looking at various pathogens that may be behind what is known as sea star wasting syndrome, but they suspect that a key contributing factor is warming ocean waters.
READ MORE

Loss of Snowpack and Glaciers
In Rockies Poses Water Threat

by ed struzik
From the Columbia River basin in the U.S. to the Prairie Provinces of Canada, scientists and policy makers are confronting a future in which the loss of snow and ice in the Rocky Mountains could imperil water supplies for agriculture, cities and towns, and hydropower production.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Peter
Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale