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Northern community divided over nuclear waste question

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The Northern Village of Pinehouse is located in an idyllic setting on the shores of Pinehouse Lake, amid the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan. Behind its apparent tranquility however, the issue of nuclear waste is dividing the community.

Pinehouse, along with English River First Nation and Creighton, is one of three Saskatchewan communities currently being considered for the site of a centralized deep geological repository for all of Canada’s nuclear waste.

The aboriginal and Métis community of more than 1,000 people is located roughly halfway between Meadow Lake, about 250 km to the south, and Key Lake, the site of the world’s largest high-grade uranium mine, about 225 km to the north.

The village first came to the attention of Canadians in the late 1970s when the CBC program The Fifth Estate profiled it in a scathing documentary about its alcoholism problem, calling Pinehouse “the drinking capital of northern Saskatchewan.”

Since then, the community has worked hard to overcome that image, and despite continued poverty, there are also signs of more recent prosperity.

Big changes came to Pinehouse with the opening of the Key Lake mine in the early 1980s, and later other uranium mines in places like McArthur River. The mining was controversial at the time, and some residents still oppose it, but uranium mining has already made Pinehouse part of the nuclear economy.

“People are very used to that,” says Vince Natomagan, one of the community leaders now urging the village to take a close look at nuclear waste. “If it wasn’t for Cameco, or the mining in general, we’d be absolutely impoverished.”

Cameco Corporation, the main owner of Key Lake, brings millions of dollars annually into Pinehouse, says Natomagan, executive director of Kineepik Métis Local.

But Natomagan’s views aren’t universally shared in the community, with some opposing the mining, and many wanting no part of Pinehouse becoming the site of a nuclear waste repository.

Throughout the village, many houses are plastered with hand-made signs reading: “Say no to nuclear waste.”

Village resident Fred Pederson, 70, says he’s the one who made the signs and stirred up opposition to the nuclear waste proposal.

“I’m maybe 500 per cent against it,” says Pederson. “I’ve been fighting since day one.”

Pederson says he and other members of the Committee for Future Generations have collected names on a petition opposing the plan from about 60 per cent of the community.

He and his friend John Smerk were among the original six from Pinehouse to organize against the proposal.

Pederson claims that more people in the community would sign the petition, but they are afraid to because their livelihoods are connected to Pinehouse Business North, the economic development corporation closely tied to the village leadership.

Pederson is worried about the dangers of nuclear waste, but he also believes the village leadership is acting in its own economic interests and not the interests of the community. Nor is he impressed by the answers he’s received from representatives of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).

“They circle around the questions,” says Pederson. “They’ve got a fancy way of avoiding the questions.”

What would he ask?

“We want them to bring this nuclear waste in their hands or stick it in their pockets,” he says. “Bring it to Pinehouse. Bring it to Meadow Lake and show the people that it’s safe. If they can carry that stuff and bring it to us, then we’ll let them go with it.”

Smerk dismisses suggestions that the jobs from the project will benefit the community.

“We’re going to sacrifice land, water, and air for two generations of jobs?” he asks, noting that the radioactivity will last millions of years.

He dislikes the way NWMO has come into the community using its money to try to influence the community leadership and elders.

“I think there should have been a vote before they were even allowed to step into the community,” he says. “They should not have been allowed to come in here like snakes.”

Glen McCallum, one of the village leaders, takes issue with opponents who he says fear monger and aren’t willing to listen or learn.

“If we just say no to everything, it’s not good for our future,” says McCallum, coordinator of social development.

Trapping is gone, there are few commercial fishers, and forestry is being depleted, says McCallum. The community needs to turn to new opportunities, educating its young people, and putting trust in technology, he says.

McCallum, 56, admits he was against uranium when it was first developed in the 1980s, but says he’s changed his view. The community has never lost a life because of uranium, but it has lost lives to drugs, alcohol and suicide, he says.

As for the nuclear waste proposal, McCallum insists that the people of the community will be the ones to decide whether or not to go ahead.

Dale Smith is a commercial fisherman who’s resisted the lure of uranium, which he says the community is now dependent on just like it was dependent on welfare and alcohol in earlier years.

At one time, Smith hired 26 people to assist him. Now, with competition from the mines, he can’t find anyone willing to work.

“For some of them, it’s an insult to work for $100 a day cash,” he says.

Smith says he’s made it a point over the years to inform himself about the nuclear industry and the waste question. He thinks the discussion today about nuclear waste is as one-sided and pro-industry as it was in the early 1980s about the apparent benefits of uranium.

“If they want to talk about the future, I want to use facts,” he says, adding that only a few residents have done their own research.

For example, Smith is skeptical that the waste will simply be buried and left underground. He suspects that at some point there will be a financial incentive to retrieve the waste and reprocess it, bringing an added level of danger to Pinehouse.

“Nobody buries gold he says,” referring to the vast energy still remaining in the spent fuel rods.

Vince Natomagan says he’s neither advocating for nor against going ahead with the project at this stage – only for gathering more information and encouraging community members to do the same.

It’s unusual, he suggests, to be given an opportunity to study a project and engage the proponents without having to make a firm commitment for seven to 10 years.

By engaging in the process, the community has been able to do baseline studies at NWMO’s expense, regardless of whether or not Pinehouse ultimately decides to become the repository location, Natomagan says. This data will be useful for other economic development initiatives, he says.

“Let’s not base our decision like we historically have. Let’s not base it on fear,” says Natomagan.

Smith is unconvinced. People just want to survive and live a decent life, and they’ll adapt to changing conditions, whether it be forestry, fishing, thermal, solar or a hydro dam, he says.

“Living in a contaminated land, I don’t think we can adapt, regardless,” Smith adds.

Meadow Lake Progress, June 21, 2012 http://www.meadowlakeprogress.com/2012/06/20/northern-community-divided-over-nuclear-waste-question