Despite having significant potential for uranium, Nova Scotia has had a moratorium, and later a ban, on uranium exploration and mining since 1981.
The moratorium nipped in the bud a potential uranium mining industry that could have brought much-needed jobs and investment to the province in recent decades. Perhaps worse, the uranium moratorium sent a signal to the global mining industry that Nova Scotia is a risky place to invest. All these years later, it continues to harm Nova Scotia’s reputation and suggests that our province is closed for business.
The ban is in effect a ban on the collection of data that could help all Nova Scotians better understand the possible economic benefits of a uranium industry, and areas where development should be better-managed to reduce the exposure of Nova Scotians to high uranium levels in water and radon gas in houses.
The Government of Nova Scotia should lift the ban and welcome uranium exploration and mining to the province. Modern uranium mining is safe and environmentally-responsible. It is essential to our standard of living and there is no reason Nova Scotia should not be in the business of mining and exporting uranium.
Uranium in Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia had a boom in uranium exploration from approximately 1976 to 1981. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on uranium exploration. Companies like Shell Canada, Esso Minerals, Gulf Minerals and others were actively exploring in the province.
Uranium occurrences were documented all over Nova Scotia. Other minerals were also discovered during this period as a result of exploration for uranium.
The boom ended when a politically-motivated moratorium was imposed, in the middle of an election campaign, which had no basis in scientific evidence. That moratorium became a formal ban in 2009 when the legislature passed a law prohibiting uranium mining and exploration.
The moratorium and later ban had a number of negative impacts that continue to harm the mining industry and Nova Scotia’s economy today:
- Exploration activity ceased overnight with a resulting loss of jobs and investment.
- Title to uranium claims, which the industry considers an implied contract with the Government, was effectively cancelled with no notice and no compensation. Tens of millions of dollars in exploration were rendered worthless. The cancelation of title in this manner is a level of “sovereign risk” one associates with third world countries, not a Western democracy like Canada.
- The uranium moratorium was put in place for political reasons with no basis in fact or scientific evidence.
- Exploration for other commodities also dropped off because the uranium moratorium signalled that Nova Scotia is not committed to having a reasonable, science-based regulatory regime. Uncertainty over whether Nova Scotia is open to mining persists and is reflected in, for example, the Fraser Institute’s annual survey of global mining executives which ranks Nova Scotia as the worst jurisdiction in Canada in which to invest.
- Because uranium exploration ceased, Nova Scotia is no longer proactively documenting uranium occurrences. This contributes to the ongoing exposure of Nova Scotians to high uranium levels in water and radon gas in houses. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer and the province is not doing enough to address the issues created by leaving uranium in the ground and building homes on uranium deposits.
Canada was the world's largest uranium producer for many years, accounting for about 22% of world output. Today, Canada is the still the second largest uranium producer in the world.
Uranium is probably best known for its role in providing electricity. Nuclear energy is used to generate around 11% of the world's electricity, in over 30 countries, while generating almost no greenhouse gas emissions. About 15% of Canada's electricity comes from nuclear power. With Nova Scotia’s energy mix, and hydroelectricity for the Lower Churchill project expected to come online within a few years, Nova Scotia does not need nuclear energy. However, there is a significant global market that Nova Scotia could help fill by mining uranium and exporting it.
Most people do not realize that there are also many other uses of uranium that are vital to our health, safety and modern standard of living. For example:
- Medicine - Radioisotopes are widely used for diagnosis, medical research and treatment of some illnesses, such as cancer. About half of all people in Canada will experience the benefits of nuclear medicine in their lifetime.
- Growing and Preserving Food - Radioisotopes are used to produce high yielding, disease-resistant and weather-resistant varieties of crops, to study how fertilisers and insecticides work, and to improve the productivity and health of domestic animals. Some foods are irradiated to reduce harmful bacteria and prolong shelf life.
- Environmental Protection - Radioisotopes are used to detect and analyse pollutants in the environment, and to study the movement of surface water in streams and also of groundwater.
- Industrial Uses - Radioisotopes are used to examine welds, detect leaks, study the rate of wear of metals, and for on-stream analysis of a wide range of minerals and fuels.
- Smoke Detectors - A radioisotope derived from the plutonium formed in nuclear reactors is used in most household smoke detectors.
- Space Missions - Radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) are used in space missions. The Voyager space probes, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the New Horizons mission to Pluto all are powered by RTGs. The Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers have used a mix of solar panels for electricity and RTGs for heat. The latest Mars rover, Curiosity, is much bigger and uses RTGs for heat and electricity as solar panels would not be able to supply enough electricity.
Uranium has many vital uses and Nova Scotians are currently benefiting from uranium mining that occurs in other jurisdictions, such as Saskatchewan. There is no reason why Nova Scotians should not also benefit from the jobs and economic opportunities that would be created by mining uranium here.
We also note that lifting the uranium ban would not cost the government any money as it struggles to deal with its fiscal challenges. The fiscal impact would only be positive as uranium exploration restarts, and Nova Scotia’s reputation in the global mining industry improves.