It looked to be a nuclear renaissance set on Canada's sub-Arctic plains.
Over the past few years, a series of companies secured rights to remote stretches of Inuit land that hide rich troves of uranium. One project alone, the five mines that make up the Kiggavik proposal from French nuclear giant Areva, stands poised to increase Canada's uranium output by 35 per cent.
But before the first pounds of yellowcake are harvested from the tundra, a fearful word has entered the debate: Fukushima. The Japanese nuclear plant, which melted down recently, has become synonymous with renewed worry about the safety and ethics of atomic energy. Indeed, even in the farthest stretches of the country, Fukushima is raising new questions for Inuit now considering whether to mine nuclear fuel from their soil. The renaissance is stumbling.
In Nunavut, two separate reviews, one by the territorial government and one by the organization that manages Inuit lands, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., are considering whether and how to proceed with uranium in development. In northern Labrador, the Inuit Nunatsiavut government stands ready to decide whether to renew a three-year moratorium on uranium mining that came up for review at the end of March.
The Fukushima disaster has unfolded in the midst of all three reviews.
"The timing couldn't have been worse for discussing this issue," said Rick Mazur, the chief executive officer of Forum Uranium, which has interests in 245,000 hectares of prospective Nunavut land.
The renewed worries about nuclear safety have arisen at a critical time for Canada's Inuit, as they try to reconcile new gains from the mining industry with the impact of uranium mining on people and a fragile landscape.
Land claims have given Inuit a powerful voice in what activity can take place on their land. If they say yes, the North could become like a new Saskatchewan, where uranium becomes a major economic driver. If they say no, they could steer the region away from a controversial energy source, but also an uncertain economic future.
Sandra Inutiq chairs a group called Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit, which translates to "Nunavummiut can rise up" and she has opposed uranium development. In an interview, Ms. Inutiq warned that allowing uranium development will transform parts of Nunavut into "a wasteland of tailings."
She believes the message has been widely received.
"My sense is that people aren't for it."
And, she added, Fukushima has raised the stakes, as Inuit contemplate the ethical implications of allowing uranium from their territory to be exported around the world - even though no one has died from the Fukushima disaster and industry says nuclear technology is safe.
Uranium mines and nuclear reactors are, of course, very different enterprises. But an accident at a nuclear plant is still, for many, cause to question uranium. Such concern has driven government consultation meetings late into the night as the territory and residents grapple with the issue.
"The nuclear disaster has brought about another facet to the discussion," said Terry Audla, the chief executive officer of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. "It's brought about awareness as to the end result of nuclear power and its possible consequences."
The government nuclear-policy review is expected to report later this summer. NTI will then launch its own review, in which a broad range of scenarios - from restricting development to maintaining a status quo that allows it to proceed - will be considered.
"It's all up for discussion," Mr. Audla said. "It's a matter of, with the resources that are available to Nunavut, whether they want to exploit it and whether there's any special requirements with respect to the exploitation of that ore."
The issue is a complicated one, not least because NTI itself has a stake in the outcome of its decisions. The organization has signed agreements with two companies - Forum and Kivalliq Energy Corp. - that give it an option to take equity stakes as projects advance. Kivalliq calls NTI a "project partner." Forum's Mr. Mazur warned that the agreements should allow development regardless of what the organization decides.
"We have a contractual, legally binding arrangement to allow us to explore and to go to a production lease," he said.
Further complicating matters: Nunavut is gaining its first taste of new mining in years, and many like it.
The Nunavut town of Baker Lake, for example, is now home to something almost unimaginable a few years ago: Hummers. They have been bought with wealth generated by a new gold mine built by Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. And Baker Lake happens to be the community nearest uranium development.
"The [uranium]mine should be opened," said Bobby Tagoona, a 19-year-old high-school student and graphic designer who is planning a post-graduation road trip across North America. He plans to finance it with money he has made working for the gold mine in recent summer.
Uranium development "might ruin a whole bunch of land for years and years and years. But the benefits, like hundreds of jobs and the fact that there's going to be a permanent road [to the site]even in the winter - that outweighs it," he said. "Our generation really wants it."
Still, decision-makers have struggled with uranium. In northern Labrador, for example, the Nunatsiavut government has yet to decide even whether it will review the moratorium, although bureaucrats have been tasked with planning a workshop for legislators to contemplate the issue later this year.
That has created substantial frustration among companies already struggling with the damage caused by the Japanese meltdown, which has hurt share prices and impeded capital flow. Crosshair Exploration & Mining Corp., for example, has sunk $24-million into the area and needs to spend another $20- to $40-million to prove up a resource that, for now, stands at one-third the size needed for a mine. But it has halted all work pending a change in the moratorium, which executive chairman Mark Morabito said could endure for some time.
Nunatsiavut decision-makers "move at their own pace. They are completely indifferent to anyone else's agenda but their own," he said. "And money is not going to go into that jurisdiction if they're going to continually adopt policies which are hostile to resource development."
Still, Mr. Morabito holds out hope that time will ease the worry sparked by Fukushima. That, he believes, will help ease the way for developers of uranium development in Canada's most remote lands.
The meltdown is "a complete PR event. It hasn't changed anything on the supply and demand perspective. And in six months or less, it won't be a factor at all," he said.Report Typo/Error