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Cameco defends safety of uranium mining as Cigar Lake mine opens

Cameco defends the safety of uranium mining as the Saskatoon-based company opens its Cigar Lake mine in northern Saskatchewan.
Cameco defends the safety of uranium mining as the Saskatoon-based company opens its Cigar Lake mine in northern Saskatchewan. Calvin To / Global News

SASKATOON – Cameco’s CEO Tim Gitzel defended the safety of uranium mining as the company opened its operations at Cigar Lake this week amid trying times for the sector.

“Anyone that’s toured these mines, talked to our workers, they can talk to the communities, they can see our statistics, it’s a very safe occupation, and we’re proud to be part of it,” Gitzel said.

Those comments stand in stark contrast to a report released in July by Quebec’s environmental regulation agency (BAPE) concluding after a year of study that it would be premature to allow uranium mining in the province.

The three-person BAPE panel wrote that there are still many uncertainties and “significant gaps in scientific knowledge of the impacts of uranium mining on the environment and public health.”

Gitzel disagrees.

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“I thought that was a very unfortunate finding in Quebec,” said Gitzel.

“We would take issue with some of the findings that came out of that report. We’ve been operating here for 50 years in Saskatchewan under the close scrutiny of the federal government, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the provincial government – lots of regulatory oversight.”

The head of Canada’s nuclear watchdog also took issue with the BAPE report when it was published. Michael Binder wrote a letter to the Quebec environment minister calling it “very troubling to have the BAPE present your government with conclusions and recommendations that lack scientific basis and rigour.”

Binder went on to say that “to suggest that uranium mining is unsafe is to imply that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and the government of Saskatchewan have been irresponsible in their approval and oversight of the uranium mines of Canada for the last 30 years.”

While uranium mining is finding no love in Quebec, Saskatchewan has embraced it with open arms.

In June, the federal government also made an exception to the country’s longtime policy that requires uranium mines to be majority-owned by Canadian firms, greenlighting an application by Australia’s Paladin Energy.

Earlier this month, however, Aurora Energy announced it was suspending uranium exploration in Labrador, pointing to lower commodity prices for the decision. Exploration may resume if the price of uranium rebounds.

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READ MORE: Delayed Cigar Lake uranium mine finally has its official launch

Gitzel, meantime, defended Cameco’s operational and safety record, despite multiple major floods at the Cigar Lake mine during construction, as well as a flood at the company’s McArthur River mine in 2003.

“This is very tricky, delicate, complex geology here that we’re working in,” said Gitzel.

“We learned a lot of lessons at McArthur that we applied here at Cigar. We learned more at Cigar, and you see the operations today are very safe; you can put our safety statistics up against anybody. We keep working on that.”