Beginning in the 1950s as a settlement mostly of scattered tents, it began acquiring buildings and community services in 1960. Until 1982 it had around 5,000 residents. Now it has 201. The mines which gave it its purpose – and its name – are gone. But not forgotten.
And not really completely gone either.
One, the Gunnar Mine, on the sweetly named Crackingstone Peninsula, 16 miles from the centre of the “city”, ceased production in 1963 and was abandoned the following year. It had been worked for just eight years, first as an open-cast site, then as a deep pit. The surface buildings, including the winding-gear, were finally demolished in 2011.
The work was part of Project Cleans (Cleanup of Abandoned Northern Sites), a multi-million-dollar project “to assess and reclaim Gunnar Uranium Mine and Mill site, Lorado Uranium Mill site and 35 satellite mine sites in northern Saskatchewan”. It’s a project that still has some way to go.
In November, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission approved part of a plan by the Saskatchewan Research Council to “remediate” the mine. Or, as reported last week by the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, “to clean up 4.4 million tonnes of radioactive tailings”.
“Tailings” are mine dumps consisting of rock and effluent generated in the processing plant. This is essentially a huge radioactive slagheap. The old mine itself is flooded and also needs a deep clean.
The estimated cost of decontaminating the site has ballooned since the project was announced. In 2006, it was expected to cost $24.6 million. The current estimate is $268m.
It’s unclear who will foot the bill. It’s become the subject of dispute between the Canadian national government and the government of Saskatchewan.
The company that ran the mine won’t be shelling out. It went out of business long ago. Not nearly as long as the problem it left is going to be around, though.
As nuclear chemist Ann Coxworth of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society says: “Planning for centuries ahead is never easy”.
The present plan is for the tailings to be buried beneath “more than a metre” of earth. This, Coxworth says, is “as good as it can get at a practical level”. Whether it’s anywhere near good enough is a moot point.
Pointing out that the site’s remoteness is no excuse for not cleaning it up, she asks: “How do you balance the cost against the moral acceptability of it?” How indeed.
And this seemingly intractable problem is in Canada, one of the most economically sound and well governed countries in the world. Imagine how much worse this sort of problem is in India, Gabon, Congo, Niger or almost anywhere else uranium is mined.
And this is just the old mine. The radioactivity in the tailings is about three times the radioactivity of the uranium that went off to the reactors.
And what about the radioactive waste from the reactors? After a few decades it’s still thousands of times as radioactive as the uranium that went in, and it’ll be highly dangerous for thousands of years to come.
As my brother Clive – a qualified nuclear physicist – asks: “Who do you trust to dispose of it properly? Or even to have the faintest idea of how to dispose of it properly?”
This is not just a distant Canadian (or Indian, or Congolese, or Chinese) problem. It’s very much our problem too.
And worth pondering very seriously at a time when there are finally real hopes for tidal power (see Swansea Bay). When the technology of solar power is improving so rapidly (despite governmental stalling and obstruction). And when Dutch railways have just announced that they are running entirely on wind power.
Just occasionally, fake news can be brilliant. And very occasionally the TV listings pages are really worth reading. The Scottish Sunday Herald ticked all those boxes at the weekend.
TV writer Damien Love’s summary of Friday’s President Trump: The Inauguration begins: “After a long absence, The Twilight Zone returns with one of the most ambitious, expensive and controversial productions in broadcast history.”
He adds: “The story begins in a nightmarish version of 2017 in which huge sections of the US electorate have somehow been duped into voting to make Donald Trump president. It sounds far-fetched, and it is, but as it goes on it becomes more and more chillingly plausible.”
And he concludes: “It’s a flawed piece, but a disturbing glimpse of the horrors we could stumble into, if we’re not careful.”
I really, really didn’t want to add again this week to the noise surrounding Trump. But journalistic genius deserves its due. Love’s full brilliant column can be found here.