Blog: Environmental Justice in a Nuclear Age

Blog post by CELA Student Intern Jane Cooper
Photo Credit: Dick Loek, 1991, Toronto Star photo Archive, Denison Mines and Tailings, Elliot Lake, Ontario. Source:

In the quest to produce greener and more efficient energy, we cannot overlook the lifecycle impacts of energy production and their potential interactions with existing systemic inequities. Case in point, is nuclear power, which has been largely presented as a clean form of energy. However, the entire life cycle of nuclear energy production—from uranium mining to radioactive waste storage—must be considered. There are health risks and costs along the way.

A particularly poignant example of this comes from France. As a country, they currently derive 70% of their electric power from nuclear energy (though this will be reduced  by 20% in the coming decades due to a wave of decommissioning of aging nuclear power plants). Much of this energy comes from uranium mined in the former French colony Niger—currently an estimated three out of four light bulbs in France are powered by this uranium. Despite powering so many French households, Niger itself has an access to electricity rate of around 10-20% in urban areas, and 2-3% in rural areas. The mining has also taken an extreme toll on people and animals alike. The country is now saddled with an estimated 45 million tons of uranium tailings, and the mines have used (and dumped) 270 billions litres of contaminated water into Nigerois rivers and lakes. Children have been known to play in the rubble. From a former driver for COMINAK (national uranium mining company of Niger): “Our children are already in contact with uranium. They have it in their bones, in their blood and their children will also have it.”

Unsurprisingly, historical and current injustices also exist in Canadian nuclear power and resource extraction. Uranium mining for the uranium used to power Canadian households has often been met with Indigenous opposition, such as from First Nations, and Inuit. Too often, Indigenous communities gain little economic benefit from development on their traditional lands, and instead bear the costs for generations to come. For example, though Elliot Lake’s numerous uranium mines are all inactive, it stores 145.3 million tonnes of radioactive tailings, and have had dire social, political, environmental, and health impacts on the nearby Serpent Lake First Nation. There is also the question of the long term storage of nuclear waste, likely in deep geologic repositories, which “will remain a potential health risk for many hundreds of thousands of years.” In Ontario, there are concerns of coercion, with low-income communities being especially susceptible. Already, substantial “goodwill” funds have poured into potential sites—a reported 3.2 million to Teeswater, and hundreds of thousands to Ignace, where “NWMO is also offering money to local landowners willing to co-operate.” From a local community member in Teeswater, “our community has really started to rely on the money from the NWMO.”

What lessons can be learned from this history, especially in light of federal funding for new, untested new nuclear technology such as Small Modular Reactors in Canada? Primarily, that Canadian scientists, environmental planners and the legal community alike, cannot overlook the people who will bear the hidden costs of nuclear power: everyone from the miners at greater risk of lung cancer, to the communities tasked with storing the waste for centuries.

These impacts cannot be an afterthought, and must be guarded against both in theory and in practice.