The federal government is rejecting calls to take over the regulation of uranium exploration despite mounting public concerns about the search for the radioactive metal, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Ottawa currently oversees all uranium project development and mining due to the dangerous nature of the commodity, which is used to make fuel for nuclear reactors. But it has left the regulation of uranium exploration to the provinces.
An internal briefing document prepared for federal Natural Resource Minister Gary Lunn's office indicates there are no plans to wade into a growing controversy regarding uranium drilling efforts.
Titled "Uranium Exploration and Mining in Canada and the North Frontenac Ventures Issue," the briefing memo concerns the uproar about a junior mining company's attempts to drill for uranium in Eastern Ontario.
The 20-page document, prepared by federal bureaucrats, notes that as the price of uranium has increased amid rising demand, exploration activities across Canada have grown dramatically. Some junior companies are now drilling for uranium in less remote areas, prompting protests from nearby residents and native groups who have called for a moratorium on uranium exploration because of environmental concerns.
Under a section titled "Federal Response," the briefing document states that Ottawa is "monitoring events closely" but emphasizes that "exploration is a provincial responsibility." The memo also says that "exploration drilling for uranium should not have a significant environmental impact."
Gordon Edwards, president of the Montreal-based Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, said Ottawa should take over uranium exploration regulation or at least take a leadership role. "To simply pass the buck and say, 'We don't want to get involved,' I think, is irresponsible," Mr. Edwards said in an interview.
The boom in uranium prices has led to a surge in staking and exploration activities, sometimes in populated areas or near watersheds. "It's absurd. It's a free-for-all," Mr. Edwards said. "There should be firm guidelines and I think there should be no permission to explore in built-up areas."
The briefing document was prompted by an exploration program in Ontario's North Frontenac region by a privately held company, Frontenac Ventures Corp. The Oakville, Ont.-based company has run into fierce opposition from local residents and leaders of native communities in the Sharbot Lake area, about 100 kilometres north of Kingston, who worry that drilling could cause severe environmental damage and contaminate water.
The company has staked claims to about 12,000 hectares in the area, including some on residential property.
"A handful of exploration companies are a little short of corporate social responsibility - little sensitivity and perspective, or understanding of the need to consult and build support," the briefing memo says.The memo, dated Jan. 15, 2008, represents the first indication of the federal position on the Frontenac controversy.
"Many people perceive exploration activities as indicating that a mine will be developed," says the document, obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin under the Access to Information Act.
"This has boiled over into calls for a moratorium in these areas - so far, this is a provincial matter to sort out - if they get to the development stage, these companies will have to deal with the CNSC [Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission] and there will be all kinds of opportunity for public consultation," the document says.
Frontenac Ventures president and chief executive officer George White said the federal government assessment of the company's public relations efforts is incorrect.
"I don't know where they are coming from. We've never attended any meetings with them and never had any dialogue with them. Consequently, I would say they are off-base," he said in an interview.
With 30 employees in the Sharbot Lake area, the company has spent more than $4-million on its exploration program so far and is holding consultation meetings with some native communities.
"Frontenac does not have a duty to consult; that rests squarely with the federal and provincial governments," Mr. White said.
Currently, uranium is mined only in Saskatchewan. However, the resurgence of nuclear power as a viable energy source has spurred a rush of exploration in other provinces and territories. The federal government estimates some 250 exploration firms will spend $350-million on uranium exploration this year.
In response to potential environmental concerns, British Colombia and Nova Scotia have issued moratoriums on uranium exploration.
New Brunswick recently established strict rules governing uranium exploration after some companies began searching for the radioactive metal near Moncton, spurring protests from residents who say the activities threatened the environment.
Several lobby groups are calling on Ontario to bring in a moratorium on exploration, but the province has refused.