Uranium Exploration and Mining: Some Considerations

                                                                                                                                                           by David Orton

            There currently exists in Nova Scotia a moratorium on uranium mining and exploration, which was first put in place in 1982. The same year the McCleave uranium inquiry was established in the province. My wife Helga and I were both very involved in this uranium struggle, after moving to N.S. in 1979 from the West Coast. At that time, this was our main environmental interest. We defined the uranium issue as one that included opposing the building of nuclear power plants in Nova Scotia and opposing any nuclear power plants in New Brunswick.

            I have gone through the records I have kept of this work (none of it was on the internet) and our involvement, to try and answer for myself and for others why the moratorium against uranium exploration and mining was put in place. This is material from about 25 years ago. At that time, there truly became an eventual mass public opposition to uranium exploration/mining in Nova Scotia, to which many activists, both mainstream and radical, and the general public, contributed. One example of this would be, because of citizen interest, the 44 meetings held by the McCleave uranium inquiry around the province. There were apparently about 242 presentations, of which it is said 211 were in opposition to uranium mining. Three articles from that time period, directed at different audiences, are now available:
Uranium mining: hearings into dangers needed. The Chronicle Herald (August 24, 1981), 

- The Search For Uranium in Nova Scotia. The Atlantic Postal Worker (Jan.-Feb. Issue, 1982),

- The McCleave Uranium Inquiry in N.S. Atlantic Socialist (Vol.1, No.2, December 1982). 


            The group Helga and I both worked in then, which we established, was called SEPOHG (Socialist Environmental Protection and Occupational Health Group). As the name implies, we were trying to combine environmental and occupational health issues with a socialist flavour, and we worked with all who were willing to join forces with us against environmental and workplace degradation. (I even joined the uranium group of the Ecology Action Centre (EAC), the largest mainstream environmental organization in the province, until having to resign because of their intentionally timid eco-politics – what Arne Naess was to call “shallow” environmentalism.)

            There was outreach not only to the mainstream environmental movement, e.g. the Maritime Energy Coalition, but also to local environmental groups, who sometimes were not a self-defined “group” at all but a few individuals in a particular geographic area. We also worked with others to bring together the more radical elements in the environmental movement. Thus a coalition of nine organizations in February of 1982 set out our own terms of reference for what a genuine inquiry into uranium mining and exploration would entail, in contrast to the provincial government’s McCleave inquiry. This sent the inquiry commissioner into outer orbit. The article in the Atlantic Socialist examines and gives a number of examples of the totally bizarre behaviour of judge Robert McCleave, who threatened to subpoena and “hold in contempt” several of my activist friends. He is someone, now dead, who could perhaps be classified as a fascist populist. Within the environmental movement the mainstream groups seemed to have no trouble adjusting to MacCleave’s behaviour. A famous sketch at this time by D. Gallagher, showed a person in McCleave’s arms labeled Ecology Action Centre with the text, “Be careful Robert, and remember - if there’s gotta be bloodshed, don’t kill the inquiry!” Six organizations, including our own, wrote an open March 7, 1982 letter to the Premier Buchanan asking for McCleave’s removal as uranium inquiry commissioner based on his behaviour. Buchanan of course wrote to us saying he had the “utmost confidence” in the judge.

            One of the problems faced at that time, was to get on top of the various scientific issues swirling around uranium geochemistry, in order to deal with the more important basic values which are ultimately more significant and obviously in contention. At the same time, anyone who becomes somewhat familiar with the history of the uranium/nuclear industry, knows that “standards” and scientific certainties have a habit of falling by the wayside. In the early 1980s, geologists, as company front persons, were singing the tune how uranium mining and exploration could be done safely and referring to various other locations where this had been supposedly done. (A picture which still sticks in my head, part of a company pro mining presentation in Nova Scotia, is of an uranium mine in France with apparent contented cows grazing in fields around the mine shaft.) My own “scientific” understanding I felt was quite lacking, and I took some courses to bring myself up to speed, including a “Environmental and Resource Geology” course at Dalhousie University. In preparing a term paper “Uranium Contamination In N.S. Wells - Some Geological and Environmental Considerations,” I saw that there was significant uranium mineralization in certain areas of Nova Scotia and that this would be reflected in some way on exposed human populations. I came to understand that there are two distinct bedrock geological areas where uranium was being sought: granitic, intrusive igneous rock and an area of sedimentary rock, primarily sandstone. (Generally an “ore body” means that 250 grams of uranium, or more, can be extracted from each tonne of rock, in which uranium is the main or sole product.)

            This information gave us a basis, along with Helga’s medical knowledge (she is a nurse) to discuss possible links between disruptive uranium exploration by pin-cushion drilling to outline an ore body or large scale excavation for bulk sample purposes, road building, etc. and well and groundwater contamination. Knowledge of well water uranium contamination by radionuclides was an emerging problem in several communities where uranium deposits are located, so this mobilized a constituency with a direct personal health stake in preventing uranium exploration and eventual mining. Nova Scotia government officials persistently tried to minimize the danger of drinking water contaminated with uranium and its daughter products. We put out a quite technical leaflet with references, called Uranium In Well Water In Nova Scotia - What Are the Problems? which enabled us to:

a) make factual information available to the people directly concerned;

b) expose the false assurances of well-being, put forth by health officials and their pretensions to scientific objectivity; and

c) show, through the uranium well water issue, that a serious problem already existed in N.S., and therefore disruptive exploration and mining could magnify this. Consequently, it should not be allowed.

            In our attempt to educate ourselves we found the three volume 1980 B.C. report, Royal Commission into Uranium Mining, very helpful. Although the three commissioners were pro-uranium mining, it brought together much material, particularly from the medical profession. This, with additional material, helped us put out references for others like “Uranium Exploration And Mining: References Of Interest For Workers” and “Uranium Exploration and Mining: References Of Interest For Farmers And Others In Rural Areas.”

            Although then living in Halifax, I worked with rural residents on the uranium exploration issue, including for example, the Digby Fish and Game club, and there were many trips out of the city. The Pictou County Women’s Centre sent me a copy of a June 9, 1981 letter to then Premier Buchanan calling for a moratorium on uranium mining and exploration with a note “Dear David - now what?” Lots of people wanted help and information to oppose uranium exploration which was popping up in their own rural backyards. A very big issue for many rural people is that, under the provincial Mineral Resources Act, the mining companies and the provincial government have all the rights. Provinces do not concede “ownership” of below-surface mineral rights in Canada, so “private property rights” for individual land owners are severely compromised. Even if a landowner refuses permission of entry to those looking for uranium, with the approval of the provincial minister of Mines and Energy, uranium exploration cannot be stopped “legally.” If commercial quantities of uranium ore are found, the land can be expropriated and compensation can be determined by the minister. There is no appeal. All of this aroused much bitterness and encouraged militancy.


            We tried to mobilize (mainly unsuccessfully) the labour movement. The bibliography of references for workers we sent to over 200 union locals in Nova Scotia, with a “Dear Brother/Sister” letter, asking the locals to make this information available to their membership. We asked their support for a permanent ban on uranium exploration and mining, and said that the trade union movement in the province had to become much more permanently involved. The response was quite minimal. But the postal workers did take this issue up and published an article by me in The Atlantic Postal Worker. This article made note of the Ham Commission, the 1976 Report of the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines, a conservative work, but still the basic document for understanding the relationship of lung cancers to uranium mining. Yet the Halifax and District Labour Council made a five-minute appearance before the McCleave uranium inquiry on July 14, 1982, to state they “were not opposed to uranium mining if it can be done safely.”

            What put the uranium moratorium in place in Nova Scotia, I believe, was a late-starting but in the end very significant public mobilization, which forced a provincial government to set up an alleged uranium inquiry headed up by judge Robert McCleave, who still kept his two other day jobs (as Chairman of the Labour Relations Board and as provincial court magistrate in Shubenacadie). This former “law and order” conservative MP had no apparent qualifications for such a taxing position and his eventual conduct, when challenged by more radical environmentalists, helped to unhinge and discredit the inquiry to which many in the public came forward to contribute. (Previous inquiries into uranium in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland each had three commissioners.)

            The renewed push for more uranium mines, hence for more exploration, and for more nuclear reactors, is directly linked to climate change. There is the erroneous belief in the promotion of more nuclear power plants as a supposed “carbon-neutral” and basically painless exit out of the climate change crisis. Answering what to do about the rapidly developing climate crisis, from a deeper green perspective, apart from all the very real dangers of the uranium cycle and nuclear weaponry, is crucial for stopping the current frenzy for the exploration and mining for uranium in Canada.

            Those who promote more nuclear power, keep their silence on crucial climate change parameters. They foster illusions that the existing over-consuming lifestyle can be kept as a life model, along with the perpetual growth economy, excessive population numbers, totally skewed distribution of existing economic wealth, plus our human-centered domination of the natural world. Fueling the new uranium upsurge is also a strong and renewed military interest in uranium weapons of war, led by the United States, plus the criminal use of ‘depleted’ cancer-causing uranium in modern weaponry by various “Western” governments, including Canada. There is much barely concealed military jockeying, in this “peak oil” period, for access to whatever fossil fuels remain for last-gasp exploitation. The price of uranium is high, so mining interests are chomping at the bit.

            A major issue from the early 1980s, as now, is, what personal ecological and social world view does one bring to environmental struggles in Canada. Does one chose to do battle "within the system" - when that system as in Canada, through the State, is committed to nuclear power and hence uranium mining specifically, or MORE economic growth generally? Or does one do battle by calling the existing ecological, social, and legal arrangements of industrial capitalism into fundamental question while still using such arrangements, as best one can, to oppose uranium exploration and mining and nuclear power? How does one use the industrial capitalist formation and the means which are still available to us, without reinforcing it? Does one believe that the Earth is sacred and humans cannot "own" other species or the land itself; or does one believe in socially ascribed human-centered "property rights"?

           November 8, 2007

                    To obtain any of the Green Web publications,  write to us at:

Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO
E-mail us at: greenweb@ca.inter.net

                    Back to
                  The Green Web
                  A Taste of Green Web Writings and Left Biocentrism

                    Last updated: November 8, 2007