Sean Willy, left, has visited communities in Canada, the USA and Australia in his role as director of corporate responsibility | Courtesy of Cameco

The problem for Cameco Corporation, and every other uranium producer, is not how little most people know about radiation, but how much they think they know. A 2012 survey conducted for the Canadian Nuclear Association found that less than half of Canadians who claim to be “very familiar” with radiation could correctly answer two true-or-false questions about it. It is a useful lesson for the entire uranium industry; one that some are acting on, and others – at their peril – are not.

Radiation anxieties can reach phobic proportions. Shortly after the Fukushima meltdown, fear of radiation crossing the Pacific Ocean led to a sudden surge in U.S. sales of Geiger counters, an instrument that measures ionizing radiation levels, even though scientists did not expect radioactive materials to cross the ocean until 2014, at which time it would be so diluted as to pose no risk. The Geiger does not distinguish between different radioactive materials and the varying degrees of health risks associated with each, nor the fact that ionizing radiation is pervasive in nature including in our own bodies. In December 2013, a website posted a video produced by “Dave” of a Geiger counter sounding the high radiation alarm on a northern California beach. The video, called “Fukushima radiation hits San Francisco?” went viral, triggering an investigation by the California Department of Public Health, which found the high radiation was due to naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). The recorded levels were about the same as those produced by a granite countertop.

Legacy issues plague contemporary business

Andrea Jennetta, publisher of the U.S.-based Fuel Cycle Week, a nuclear industry newsletter, believes the uranium industry has to tackle the misconceptions and fears of nuclear energy through public education and advocacy. “Almost all of the uranium produced goes to nuclear energy,” says Jennetta. “If you allow the charges and accusations [of radiation and industry dangers and abuses] to continue, all you do is erode any future support for nuclear energy. There’s a disconnect among some in the uranium mining industry, and that includes the financial sector that covers uranium. They think they’re not in the nuclear industry but the fact of the matter is they are. And if you don’t fight for nuclear energy, your business is going to go broke.”

The reality is that during the Second World War, and throughout the nuclear weapons arms race, governments and mining companies ravaged aboriginal land to extract uranium quickly, often with low-paid aboriginal miners. With short-term thinking and little consideration for the environment or health of the workers and communities, the legacy left behind was not just devastated land and a verified high incidence of lung cancer among the miners, but also a pervasive and persistent distrust and fear of uranium. That legacy is not yesterday’s news. In the Navajo Nation alone, there are 500 abandoned uranium mines still needing reclamation, although recently the Navajo Nation and the Obama administration reached an agreement that will allocate $1 billion to address about 10 per cent of those abandoned mines.

“The cleanup has gone ridiculously slowly and the uranium industry in the country has not been out in front of it, leading the charge for more funding, criticizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for how slow the cleanup is going,” says Jennetta. She cites mass media success stories such as the 2013 documentary film Pandora’s Promise, which takes a pro-nuclear stance, as being particularly effective in educating the public.

More than one way to build awareness

Cameco has operations in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, all of which have large aboriginal populations, and Sean Willy, director of corporate responsibility, has an experienced view of how industry ought to engage communities. “Look at the Ring of Fire and the Northern Gateway Pipeline project, without the support of the aboriginal communities, nothing moves,” says Willy. “In northern Saskatchewan, we were granted renewed 10-year licences in 2013 because of the health and safety record at our sites, and all of our communities came out to support us,” he explains. “We can’t sway everyone’s mind. I think you have to be transparent with the people you work with and get out early into the communities. It’s important for them to understand where our product is going.”

For 25 years, Cameco’s focus has been on building relationships and trust locally, around its operations. In Saskatchewan, Cameco developed its relationship-building methodology, mostly with aboriginal populations, since uranium in Canada, the United States, and Australia is typically near or within aboriginal communities. Cameco has strengthened trust over years by investing in and engaging with aboriginal communities through training, business and community development and communication, not to mention responsible mining. Today, it is the largest industrial employer of aboriginal people in Canada, with 750 First Nation employees working directly for the company and just as many First Nations contractors. “We put a lot of effort into looking at how to take the technical and highly regulatory world of uranium mining and make it straightforward and easier to understand,” says Willy.

Cameco developed educational material for aboriginal people in and around its sites including an online resource called Uranium 101, which is also accessible to the general public on the Internet. “We’ve made things tactile and visual. We want a traditional knowledge tie-in so they can understand the scientific nature of it, because when they understand the practical side of it, then the communities want to learn more from the academic side,” says Willy. “A lot of companies take this journey of corporate social responsibility and look at it strictly as a philanthropy mechanism. Others look at it as a risk mitigation mechanism. Cameco really sees it as a value-add that comes in big time with uranium development around the world.”

Nothing beats firsthand knowledge

When Cameco acquired major exploration projects in Western Australia in 2008, it began working with the University of Western Australia to develop educational material in the indigenous language of the local Martu people. Willy flew to Australia and met with the local communities. “They first learned about [the uranium industry] in their own language,” he says.

But they were still skeptical, so Cameco flew 16 Martu elders up to northern Saskatchewan including Noeletta Lee. “It was not what I was expecting at all,” she says. “We saw first-hand how they rehabilitate after mining. It was so green, with so many trees and new growth. In the desert, the main thing we worry about is water. We know water is used to process uranium and we were worried this could affect our water supply. We were able to see how the water is recycled and safely put back into the river system.

“It was the trip of a lifetime. We got to see every stage of the mining process, from mining to processing and rehabilitation. We sat down and talked to the First Nation elders and asked them questions about mining and how it affected their country. They live like us. There is a mine, yet people still hunt and gather and live their traditional lives. They have been mining for 20 years and we were able to learn a lot from them.”

Cameco’s approach requires patience and time, especially in the United States, where the relationship between aboriginal people, government and industry has decades’ worth of built-up distrust. “It’s critical for Cameco to be a leader in this,” says Willy. “We worry if others go and explore for uranium without the communication and education and respect for the aboriginal communities, it will potentially close doors for all of us.”