Consequences of Northern Uranium Mining
by james hörner
Short chronology of uranium mining in Canada's north
1930: Dene men first hired to carry radioactive bags of uranium ore.
1931 and 1932: Mine workers & ore carriers not told of concerns indicated by Canadian Government publications that warn of the serious health hazards associated with chronic exposure to even minute quantities of dust from high-grade radioactive ores -- in particular the Great Bear Lake ores.
Radium market declines and all radium mines are closed by 1940.
1938 to 1939: It is discovered that the "atomic bomb" can be built using uranium.
1942: Because of increased demand from the US Government, the Eldorado decides to re-open the mine at Great Bear Lake. Several large orders are made through 1942.
Ore concentrates are again carried in cloth bags with no protective clothing
1943 to 1945: Uranium from Canada, Colorado, and the Congo is used in the making of the Hiroshima bomb, and as metallic fuel for the world's first reactors. Plutonium, extracted from uranium fuel, is used as a nuclear explosive in the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs.
click here for a more complete chronology.
orkers mined uranium and radium near Deline, NWT at a mine operated from the early 1930s to '60s (originally privately owned, it was not government run until it reopened in the 1940's). During that time Dene from the Deline area were used to transport uranium and radium in burlap sacks from the mine down the Great Bear River for $3/day. This was the world's first uranium mine, and since then, according to the NWT Cancer Registry, at least 14 (of 30) workers packing the ore have died of lung, colon, and kidney cancers 1.
What is really nasty here is that the buyer of the uranium, the U.S. government, knew of the dangers of uranium mining at the time. The Canadian government, too, was well aware of these dangers and did nothing.
Canadian and U.S. governments used the ore mined by Deline's young men to build the world's first atomic bombs.
In his article "Echoes of the Atomic Age: Cancer kills fourteen aboriginal uranium workers" for the Calgary Herald, Andrew Nikiforuk notes:
During the mine's heyday in the 1950s, many Dene slept on the ore, ate fish from water contaminated by radioactive tailings and breathed radioactive dust while on the barges, docks and portages.
However, former personnel manager at Eldorado between 1946 and 1952, Bob Jenkins, is critical of the dangers. He asks, "How can someone transferring sacks of ore be exposed to more uranium than people in the mill crushing and bagging it?" Deline Dene were only hired to haul the ore, as southern workers were hired to work in the mine. Jenkins notes that "The ore sacks were double sacked, a canvas sack and a jute sack, so if one was ever broken there was a mammoth investigation reported."
This is little comfort to those who have lost members of their family to cancer.
In terms of what should be done today, it is up in the air. They could call for a public enquiry, or launch a lawsuit against the Canadian government which was responsible for the mining of uranium there (it was refined at Port Hope, Ontario). However, none of this will really resolve the fact that none of this should have happened in the first place.
Responding to suggestions that the Dene move from the area, chair of the Deline Uranium Committee Cindy Gilday says, "Where would they move? This is their home. This is tens of thousands of years of living on Great Bear Lake," she said of the 600 people who live on the world's fourth largest in-land lake.
"Their home has been poisoned by someone who is (supposed to be) a responsible party."
Clean up efforts have been underway by the federal government, but it is difficult to get all of the "hot spots."
Health Canada, Natural Resources Canada and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development are now combining to unearth the truth after a thorough information-gathering mission. This is too little, too late to help those who have died, but may at least prevent more contamination in the future with better practices put in place, and may also help to advance clean-up efforts.
Where does all this sit today? We have Frank Finley of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd dropping by northern high schools (among the thousands of people around the world he talks to each year), trying to convince them that radiation doesn't just have bad applications, that in fact it is used in producing so many things around us.
To many northerners mining must be a contradiction- it both represents employment, but also potentially means the end of a way of life due to contamination of the land they for so long lived off of. It will be difficult for the corporations to regain their trust.
How Uranium from Great Bear Lake Ended Up in A-Bombs
Echoes of the Atomic Age: Cancer kills fourteen aboriginal uranium workers
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
Uranium Information Centre
WISE (World Information Service on Energy) Uranium Project
A documentary by Peter Blow by Vision TV was recently aired entitled "Village of Widows". it tells the story of the Sahtu Dene and their work carrying the uranium ore. I didn't find out about it until it had aired, but I'm sure it would be well worth watching.
Hats off to Glen Korstrom of Northern News Services, whose articles provided valuable background research for this article.
james hörner is the editor of canadian content