A GE-Hitachi uranium-processing plant on Lansdowne has been operating under the radar for 50 years. Is that a problem?
For about 50 years, the GE-Hitachi plant at 1025 Lansdowne Avenue has been processing uranium pellets and shipping them to the Pickering nuclear plant for use in fuel-rod bundles. Only recently has this operation come under scrutiny from neighbours, thanks to nuclear activist Zack Ruiter, a 29-year-old Trent University graduate and anti-nuclear activist, who had previously protested another GE-Hitachi plant, located in Peterborough.
Ruiter canvassed the area, alerting locals to the supposed danger in their midst. With few exceptions, residents were unaware of the plant’s precise line of work. Yesterday, MP Andrew Cash, MPP Jonah Schein, Councillor Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport) and a panel of speakers from various organizations involved in nuclear safety and activism held a community meeting to address the surrounding community’s sudden concern.
But is there really a threat to public health, or is Ruiter causing needless alarm?
“I’m not aware of any particular threat,” says Pekka Sinervo, a professor of physics at U of T and expert in nuclear waste and radiation safety, who is familiar with the plant. “As a nearby resident I’m actually quite comfortable.”
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has strict guidelines that govern how facilities like the Lansdowne plant are run. The commission demands regular updates. Smokestack emissions and air quality around the perimeter of the GE plant are tested around the clock. Soil and water quality are tested at regular intervals.
By all indications the plant continues to pass those tests. As far as the federal regulator is concerned, it’s safe. Residents, of course, will judge for themselves how safe is safe enough.
The plant also voluntarily submits reports to Toronto Public Health. “Based on the information submitted so far, all their emissions appear to be in acceptable limits, so we have no concerns about the facility,” says Barbara Lachapelle, environmental health officer with the City’s Environmental Response Team.
The most serious danger is to the workers inside the plant. The primary risk to them, says Sinervo, is dust inhalation. As a preventative measure, workers handling the uranium dust would likely be required to wear respirator masks, although Sinervo can’t say exactly what the plant’s procedures are, because he hasn’t been inside.
Many people might associate uranium with nuclear bombs and Chernobyl, but that’s not quite what’s happening at the plant. The uranium it processes is not enriched, so it isn’t highly radioactive. (Natural uranium contains only 0.72 per cent Uranium-235, which is the stuff that’s high in radiation.)
“My experience is that most people, when the issues are explained to them, accept the fact that yes there is an activity underway, it’s being dealt with responsibly, they have safeguards in place, and it’s being supervised by the regulator,” says Sinervo. “Once they know all these facts they generally are assured and move on.”
But GE-Hitachi could be criticized for not making a strong effort to inform locals about what goes on at the facility. At a license renewal hearing last year in Ottawa, the company claimed to have made significant improvements to its public-consultation process. The public outcry would suggest otherwise.
Last Wednesday, GE-Hitachi admitted it could do better in that respect, at a meeting hosted by local community group DIG IN (Dupont Improvement Group) at the Bloor Gladstone library branch. The 90-minute meeting ended before many residents could get a word in, but GE-Hitachi says it was the first step in an effort to increase communications with the public.
GE-Hitachi does, meanwhile, openly state on its website that the plant is a nuclear facility.
This article originally stated that a community meeting about the GE-Hitachi plant would be held today, when in fact it took place on Thursday. It also said that Councillor Gord Perks would be in attendance. He was scheduled to appear at the event, but didn’t. Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport) showed up, instead. The article has been altered to reflect this.
Also, because of an editing error, the image at the top of this article originally depicted a building next door to the GE-Hitachi plant, rather than the plant itself. A corrected image has been substituted.