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B.C. mine breach leads nuclear safety commission to seek safety checks

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VANCOUVER - A toxic spill from a British Columbia mine has prompted the country's nuclear watchdog to request a series of checks at uranium facilities.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will discuss the failure of the tailings pond at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine during a meeting Wednesday.

In the interim, the commission has asked the uranium mining and milling operations it oversees to ensure that all necessary inspections and monitoring are in compliance with licence conditions.

"The recent tailings dam breach that occurred at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia on Aug. 4, 2014, has raised awareness of issues associated with tailings impoundments," said a letter sent to Areva Resources, Cameco Corp. (TSX:CCO), Rio Algom, Willet Green Miller, P.J. Brugger and Associates, EWL Management Ltd. and Denison Mines Inc. (TSX:DML).

"This is a reminder that vigilance must be maintained by ensuring that tailings dams continue to be properly designed, constructed, operated, maintained and monitored to prevent such occurrences."

The companies were asked to confirm that mitigation measures are in place in the event of a tailings breach.

They're also asked to confirm the safety of tailings facilities and report any identified gaps to the commission by Sept. 15.

Canada — once the world's largest producer of uranium — has four active uranium mine sites, all in Saskatchewan. There are also several closed or decommissioned uranium mines in Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Ontario.

Gord Struthers, spokesman for Cameco, said all active uranium operations store tailings in mined-out pits. They're below ground level and do not require dams to contain the slurry.

There are decommissioned operations that did use above-ground tailings storage, but those tailings are dry so there is no volume of water that could leak, he said.

"There's not possibility of that type of accident. None whatsoever," Struthers said. "That's not to say we're complacent about it."

Cameco will have no difficulty meeting the requests of the federal regulator, he said, adding that uranium mining has justifiably rigorous oversight.

On Monday, the B.C. mines minister ordered all mining companies in the province to inspect their own tailings ponds.

Bill Bennett also ordered an independent investigation into the failure of the earthen dam forming the tailings pond at the mine owned by Imperial Metals (TSX:III).

The breach sent 10 million cubic metres of waste water and 4.5 million cubic metres of silt into a network of salmon-bearing lakes and rivers near Likely, 600 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

The reason for the failure at Mount Polley is not yet known.

Jessica Draker, spokeswoman for the Mining Association of Canada, reiterated Tuesday that the incident is a concern for the entire industry.

"Like everyone else, we'll be paying close attention to the outcome of the investigations in B.C.," she said.

As part of the next round of inspections at uranium sites, nuclear commission staff will conduct "walk-down" inspections of above-ground tailings management facilities to verify safety control measures, the agency said in the letter.

"As the investigations into the Mount Polley event are completed, CNSC staff may request further measures to address any identified issues or concerns that may be applicable...," it said.

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