Sept-Îles residents continue to pressure Quebec to slap a moratorium on uranium exploration in the province, despite the government's promise to open a debate on health and safety concerns surrounding the industry.  

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Hundreds of protesters gathered Sunday in Sept-Îles to protest uranium exploration in Quebec. ((Fanny Lévesque/Le Soleil/Canadian Press))

Some 1,000 protesters gathered Sunday in the town about 900 kilometres northeast of Montreal on the North Shore.

They were backing 20 doctors who threatened to quit their practice in the remote Quebec region because of uranium exploration nearby.

"We're showing our support," said Marc Fafard, spokesman and founder of a grassroots group opposed to uranium mining in the province.

"We want to show how proud we are of the doctors to have finally made this a provincial debate. Like it should be."

The province's head of public health, Dr. Alain Poirier, met with the doctors last week.

Poirier later announced Quebec would create a special committee to study the potential risks of uranium exploration and mining on health and safety.

The government has maintained that mining the radioactive heavy metal posed no public health hazard and Jean-Pierre Thomassin, director general of Quebec's mining exploration association, agrees.

"This is strictly a fear campaign," he said. "The doctors probably have cottages near the site and don't want to be bothered."

He also believes a ban is unlikely due to potentially pricey compensations the province would have to pay to companies who have already invested in exploration.

"There would be consequences," he said. "If the government doesn't compensate the companies, it's over. No one will come to Quebec for exploration."

He adds Canada has a long track record of safely mining its uranium reserves, citing a study by the country's nuclear safety commission that followed the health of uranium miners over the past 50 years.

It suggests modern mining practices significantly minimized the risks of exposure to radon gas among mine workers.

Exploration 20 km north of Sept-Îles

The uranium debate has been raging in the region for more than a year, since mining company Terra Ventures Inc. began exploration for low-grade uranium near Lac Kachiwiss, some 20 kilometres north of Sept-Îles.

Residents have concerns over the health and safety of uranium mines and fear the mining waste could contaminate local drinking water.

Meanwhile, Fafard says public resistance will continue should the government choose not to halt the mining projects.

"The government of Quebec must — and I think will —  permit the public to be informed," said Fafard.

"And give the population of Quebec the chance to pronounce themselves on whether they want Quebec to become a uranium producing province."

Fafard notes British Columbia banned uranium mining last year and Nova Scotia announced in October a longtime ban on mining the heavy metal will be made into law.

But Thomassin says the move by those provinces was essentially meaningless. "Sure," he said. "But there was no uranium, or barely any, in those provinces."

Uranium exploration exploded in Quebec in 2007 following a spike in the price of the heavy metal. Canada produces some 20 per cent of the world's supply of uranium.