The following is Part One of a three-part series of excerpts from Gordon Laird’s new book, Power.
Named after Canada’s homegrown nuclear reactor, Candu High looks much like any other school — except this one seems to have been bombed. Trees and bush grow across the front of broken windows. Scattered about under the snow are piles of refuse — drywall, bricks and a few mangled desks. I pull out a flashlight and walk over a threshold of glass and metal scattered across the entrance; the front doors hang against the building, ripped off their hinges. Local teens and fun seekers have taken apart what wasn’t already demolished by two decades of parties on the rooftop.
In front of me is a long main hall; classrooms and offices branch off each side. It looks as if it was once a fair-sized school, maybe five hundred or six hundred kids tops. The darkness is cut by light from exterior windows, all broken. Twenty years after the fact, the remains of textbooks and lessons are still scattered about. A pile of absentee slips lies next to what appears to have been the principal’s office. November 4, 1980: someone named Pouchain missed one period of biology; someone else missed a class of English.
By chance my flashlight comes across a handwritten assignment, half rotted and faded. It’s from the day of the closing announcement. A student, looks like a girl’s writing, has made an inventory of her uncertain future. “I will be affected because my family may break up,” she writes. “My parents and the kids may move to Stoney Rapids and from there my dad will work for Rabbit Lake [mine] … I feel they are quite worried because my father has been working here since I was born.”
Upstairs, amid bricks and ceiling tiles, a catalogue of the last few months of the school unfolds. Outside it’s snowing, but inside I’m reading tatters of someone’s social studies lesson from 1981.
With its deserted suburban neighbourhoods and abandoned mines, Uranium City has almost fallen off the map. As the epicentre of Canada’s biggest-ever uranium boom, this northwest Saskatchewan community of 180 still hangs on to its elementary school, a regional hospital and a post office. Everything else, from the town’s recreation centre to the movie theatre, has either closed or been demolished. Houses, if they are still standing, now sell for about a dollar — the nice ones, fixed up and running, go for about seven hundred dollars.
The quiet, rugged landscape that surrounds Uranium City harbours an unintended legacy: a network of radioactive waste sites scattered across subarctic rock and forest, some fifty-odd uranium mines and refineries within a fifteen-kilometre radius of the town. For almost thirty years, through the height of the Cold War, Uranium City shipped atomic fuel for bombs and nuclear reactors around the world — and piles of tailings and refinery waste piled up before the advent of protective legislation. Consequently, “the potential for harm from exposure to uranium released from uranium mines and mills is widespread,” noted one Environment Canada report in 1999.
Here, a community of five thousand prospered within the rugged Shield country north of Lake Athabasca until the marketplace declined — once in 1962, when the Americans suspended demand, and finally in 1982, when the last mine closed. Now a mix of southerners, MÃ©tis and Natives live amid the abandoned homes of the ghost town and nearby radioactive tailings. Most mines were private operations that folded when the market collapsed; the owners just packed up one day and never returned, leaving equipment, headframes, vehicles and, most important, piles of tailings and waste rock. Health guidelines for radiation exposure were only instituted in 1968 and environmental controls didn’t exist until 1979, so publicly available records are spotty at best. Of all of the mines, only one has been cleaned up; work on Beaverlodge, Eldorado’s main mine in the area, began in 1982 and is still being carried out today.
Canada’s atomic age actually began in 1926, when Eldorado Gold Mines Limited founded and began operations that would dig Canada’s first radium and uranium mines into the shores of Great Bear Lake. Later, as a Crown corporation, Eldorado Nuclear Limited struck mines in northern Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, shipping partially processed ore south by airplane and barge to Port Hope, Ontario, where it would be refined for weapons-grade applications and nuclear fuel. As the first country to mine uranium on a large scale, Canada pioneered a national network of mines, processing plants and transportation that would make it a leading exporter of uranium for most of the twentieth century, a steady supplier of atomic fuel in the heady decades immediately following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Retracing the uranium trail, I have flown north to Uranium City on the weekly grocery flight from Fort McMurray, Alberta — on a single-engine Cessna packed with fresh milk, bread and heads of lettuce. To a southerner, Uranium City might seem like a long way from anywhere. Yet I’ve flown over the northeast corner of Alberta, where $51 billion in oil sands developments are reshaping the landscape and, to the south, over Saskatchewan’s Cluff Lake uranium mine, where radium from 2.5-million tonnes of tailings were found leaking into the nearby lake system by the federal government.
Canada remains stuck on the messy end of the nuclear business. Even after initial cleanups, the country still has more than ninety thousand tonnes of tailings, one of the world’s largest inventories of low-level radioactive waste, scattered across sites from Uranium City and Great Bear Lake to communities farther south such as Elliot Lake, Port Hope and Deloro in Ontario. “To date, no uranium mining operation in northern Saskatchewan has been completely decommissioned,” noted a special joint federal-provincial panel on uranium mining in 1997. “The Governments of Canada and Saskatchewan have approved an increase in uranium production from which both will accrue substantial benefits. It would, therefore, be appropriate for the federal and provincial governments to address the environmental legacy.” This recommendation, like so many others, has faded into obscurity.
The $550-million-a-year uranium industry in Canada — the world’s largest exporter — is based exclusively in Saskatchewan. For the moment, it is laying off employees and slowing mine operations, still hopeful that climate change and rising power demand will deliver a future for radioactive ore. But none of today’s advocates for atomic power, including the federal government, seems dampened by the tailings that dot Canada’s hinterlands or by evidence that ongoing attempts to contain the nuclear fuel cycle remain unsuccessful. As some predict a nuclear renaissance, Canada’s archipelago of radioactive waste offers up another question: why does a country that claims to be a world-class nuclear power continue to neglect uranium dumps that, after almost fifty years, remain a clear public and environmental hazard?