Edmonton – CANADIAN PRESS – More than 50 years after a Saskatchewan uranium mill that is a key part of Canada’s nuclear history closed, heavy machinery is once again rumbling across the remote northern corner of the province.
But this time workers at the former Lorado mill are cleaning up a massive pile of radioactive, acidic tailings that has poisoned a lake and threatened the health of wildlife and hunters for decades.
“I think we’re a lot more environmentally aware than we were 40 or 50 years ago,” said Ian Wilson with the Saskatchewan Research Council, which is the Crown-owned company that’s carrying out the cleanup.
The Lorado mill is near Uranium City, less than 50 kilometres from the Northwest Territories boundary. It’s where uranium mining once supported a community of up to 5,000 people.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says the town was one of several in Canada to rise following the Second World War and during a boom in uranium demand that was driven by military needs.
Lorado only operated from 1957 to 1961, but during that time it produced about 227,000 cubic metres of tailings that were dumped beside Nero Lake. The tailings are acidic, according to the environmental impact statement for the cleanup project, and water has run from them into the lake and killed just about everything in it.
Windblown dust from the top of the tailings, the assessment says, also presents “a gamma radiation and radon concern.”
Wilson’s job is to lead a two-year project in which workers will cover the tailings with a layer of specially engineered sand to prevent water from running over them and into the lake. As well, a lime mixture is to be added to the lake to counteract the acidity.
It’s a difficult place to carry out such work.
In 1982, when the last of the mines near Uranium City closed, most people loaded up moving trucks and headed out on an ice road across Lake Athabasca. They left homes, apartments and a new high school empty.
The final mine, the Beaverlodge operation, was quickly decommissioned. But the tailings from the Lorado site and the much larger Gunnar mine were left untouched.
Rae McLeod, who worked a stint in Uranium City as a bank employee in the late 1970s, recalls riding dirt bikes on the Lorado tailings.
“When you’re in your early 20s you don’t quite have the same sense of mortality and consequences,” he said. “We were young and foolish.”
Uranium City has about 100 residents now. Some equipment is available from local contractors, but everything else has to come in via plane, barge or the ice road, which is open for only a short period each winter.
“If you’re missing a piece of equipment, you can’t go to your Home Hardware,” Wilson said. “You have to have redundancies and plan ahead.”
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