TheFutureEconomy.ca: The Canadian economy is largely resource-based. How do you assess its potential in a world that is increasingly shifting towards knowledge-based economies?
Tim Gitzel: I think everyone’s dream in Canada is that we move to a very innovative, high tech economy going forward. We see that it is exciting, we see the Googles and Microsofts of the world and we want to emulate that. And pockets of that do exist here and we will create more of them. But I can tell you that the Canadian economy still relies heavily on natural resources – natural resources still pay the bills to a large extent.
We in Canada are very fortunate to have the natural resources we have and that the world needs. But we also need to work very hard on an innovation agenda for Canada. The current Canadian government is very focused on science, technology and innovation, and we support that as well.
“The Canadian economy still relies heavily on natural resources.”
There seems to exist a disconnect between resources and innovation in the general public’s mind. What do you attribute this to?
I would like to bring many people up to our mines in Northern Saskatchewan and show them the mining techniques we use. Technology has progressed so far beyond the truck and shovel days where we dug a pit like you used to do in your sandboxes as a young child. We do not do that anymore, it is not even close. We use mining technology today where we go 500 meters underground, we do not even go close to the ore body – we actually cut the ore out with a high pressure jetting system that has been invented and perfected by engineers over the years. It is controlled by computers and laser equipment, and is very high tech. Our mines at Cigar Lake and McArthur River are examples of this.
But you are right, there is a disconnect, but I think it is a historical perception. People think miners come out from the mines with their picks and shovels, and black on their faces. Those days are 50 years in the past and there are much safer, more productive mining methods now where there is a lot of technology involved. We also share information on these best practices as a mining company and as the mining industry.
Canada’s oil and gas industry has come to the realization that not enough work has been done to communicate technological advances that increase sustainability in that industry. Would you say the same could be said about the mining industry?
Cameco works a lot on those issues. The sustainability report we put out is one of our most critical documents. Cameco was named on the top 100 list for the most sustainable global companies last year by Corporate Knights. This is very important for us and sustainability has a lot of legs to it. There is a financial and economic side to sustainability, but even more important are the community and the environmental aspects. We know that to be sustainable, to be able to endure for a long time, we have to have all of those pieces – financial, community and environment – moving forward at the same time.
We have about 1,200 indigenous people working at our sites in Northern Saskatchewan. We are the largest industrial employer of aboriginal people in Canada, and that is very important for us. In terms of protection of the environment, we are heavily regulated at the federal, provincial and local levels. All of these elements are increasingly important and this has made mining a very complicated and expensive business. But that is what society’s expectations have become for mining companies or oil companies – that we operate in a very sustainable manner and we do our best on all aspects of sustainability.
“To be sustainable, to be able to endure for a long time, we have to have all of those pieces – financial, community and environment – moving forward at the same time.”
The current government’s strategy broadly revolves around infrastructure investment, innovation and international trade. Do you believe these are the right focus?
Yes, it is. From Cameco’s perspective, we are mostly interested in the international trade aspect since this is the core of our business. Very little of the product we produce stays in Canada. We supply the Canadian utilities that have nuclear in their energy mix but our product goes from Saskatchewan around the world. Most of our customers outside of North America are governments – the Chinese government, the French government, the Russian government –so there is a role for the Canadian government to play to facilitating trade in this respect. Those countries like to know that the Canadian government is supportive of what we do. It is critical that the federal government not do our business for us – we do not want them to. What we do need is those doors opened and those trade agreements that allow us to be able to export our product around the world to be negotiated and ratified.
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Which agreements would you like to see signed?
In our case, what is more important are bilateral agreements since the nuclear industry is a bit unique. For Cameco to sell uranium into China there has to be a bilateral Canada-China agreement – so those types of agreements are more important for us. The same applies in India, South Korea and any place that you sell nuclear products or uranium to. So bilateral agreements are those we watch very closely and are most interested in.
“What we do need is […] trade agreements that allow us to be able to export our product around the world to be negotiated and ratified.”
How do you envision the future of uranium mining and nuclear power in Canada?
When Prime Minister Trudeau talks about Canada’s energy sources he of course speaks about how we have oil and gas in abundance, but he also mentions uranium. So we are very happy to hear him talk about that. We have heard the Trudeau government talk about nuclear power as a clean, CO2-free source of energy, and that Canada has uranium in abundance. We see Ontario taking steps to renew its fleet of reactors, both through Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and Bruce Power. In fact, I’m confident people would be surprised to know that about 60% of Ontario’s electricity generation is nuclear.
As for Cameco, we mine uranium and Canada is only second after Kazakhstan as far as the production of uranium. We also operate facilities in Blind River, Port Hope and Cobourg where we undertake the conversion process and some fuel fabrication for the CANDU fleet. All this is done in Canada. So yes, it is an important industry for Canada. The country has been a leader in nuclear power for many decades and it looks like we will continue to be.
Do you see the industry growing?
With so many energy options available to us it is difficult for nuclear to compete in North America. It will be important to see how things evolve with respect to climate change, with respect to clean air, reducing CO2, keeping the world temperature increase below 2 degrees. We firmly believe that if the world is serious about achieving this, nuclear must play a role.
We support wind and solar energy. Those are great sources of electricity. However, they run about 30% of the time so they must be backed up by another power source. So we cannot run a major hospital or major transportation system or the City of Vancouver on wind and solar. We are not there yet.
So the next question becomes “what do we back them up with?” We think nuclear is a great option to back up this large base load electricity since the fuel is abundant and reactors run in any type of weather. This is a policy issue in each Canadian province. Clearly, Ontario has decided to stay with nuclear and we think that is a good decision.