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Should We Worry About Lansdowne’s Radiation Station?

A GE-Hitachi uranium-processing plant on Lansdowne has been operating under the radar for 50 years. Is that a problem?

The GE-Hitachi plant at 1025 Lansdowne Avenue. Photo from Google Street View.

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.

CORRECTION: November 16, 2012, 10:06 AM 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.

CORRECTION: November 16, 2012, 10:49 AM 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.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/vgedris Vic Gedris

    “Today, Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14 Parkdale-High Park), MP Andrew Cash, MPP Jonah Schein, and a panel of speakers from various organizations involved in nuclear safety and activism will hold acommunity meeting to address the surrounding community’s sudden concern.”

    Ummm…that was yesterday.

    • GetITrightnextTime

      and Gord Perks was not in attendence, Councillor Cesar Palacio was.

  • CaligulaJones

    A sudden, 50 year old concern. Got it.

  • Anonymous

    Hey, why don’t nuclear activists start a panic about hospitals next?

    • JennyT

      Imagine the moral dilemma for this guy if he broke a bone? lol

  • Anonymous

    Uranium is arguably safer than the lead in your car battery, the cadmium in any cheap rechargeable batteries in your house, or the mercury in a fluorescent bulb.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rfmcdonald Randy McDonald

    I did a quick Googling of the address when I found out about this plant, located a dozen minutes’ walk to my west (I’m at Dupont and Dufferin). Very quickly, I learned via the company website, public-access directories of business, and the Canadian government, what was located at 1025 Lansdowne Avenue.

    It was very easy to find out, in detail, what was going on there. My reaction to those people who never wondered what was going on there is to wonder what happened to their curiosity.

  • EricM

    I live very close to the GE/Hitachi plant who was at the Digin meeting as well. This is beyond much ado about nothing! It’s pretty sad it has got so much play. GE should have been more open to start with but this Zach character is just anti nuclear anything and while GE gave facts about a plant less dangerous than a dental x-ray while Zach talked of another plant in another city doing something totally different while also including fukashima and other fear mongering. Maybe next he will protest Staples because they may make the chairs in the CANDU offices.

  • Tyler

    I live about 5 blocks from this place and went to the meeting last night. I guess I missed the other meeting I probably should have been at. I expected a debate with GE, this guy and government. Nope. It was just activists who were anti-nuke and largely not from the community and not speaking to the plant itself. Why occupy Toronto was there is beyond me. These guys have actually done a lot of damage to a pretty great community and I’m not even sure they know it or care. Cesar Palacio sounded reasonable and rational last night if that is any indication… I left before it was over.

  • Anonymous

    When I was in high school I worked for a property maintenance company that worked on this property. They made us watch a safety video that pretty much said that the uranium “pellets” they produced were very stable and that the only real threat is the massive tank of liquid hydrogen that sits in the middle of the property. Apparently if it got hit by a truck or caught fire somehow it would take out a square kilometer. That’s why they had it in the middle of a gravel pit with chains around it to avoid an accidental collision. No danger here.

  • Anonymous

    If a headline asks a question, the answer is always “no”. This no exception.

  • Anonymous

    The small amount of radioactive uranium emits alpha particles, which are stopped by a sheet of paper or a few inches of air. If you held this stuff in your hand, the alpha particles wouldn’t even penetrate through the dead outer layer of your skin. The only risk comes from inhalation and ingestion – hence the masks the workers way and the testing of smokestack emissions and air quality.

  • Anonymous

    What a relief to see this comments section filled with reasonable people.

  • Aleks

    2 important things here….1 clearly GE is at fault for not better notifying residents in 2010 during their application for a renewal of their license…seems a bit suspicious…if what they are doing is so safe and in no ways harming to the community then they shouldn’t have had a problem informing residents in the area in 2010. 2nd point, their stacks are creating emissions and waste being disposed of in our water system which we drink out of our taps and breath in the air, meaning we are being exposed on a small scale…but keep in mind there is NO safe level of exposure to uranium…meaning over a long period of time, like 50 years, who knows what the affects are….for people commenting below saying it’s no big deal and who don’t live in the area, would you buy a house for you and your children on that street where the facility is located now that you know? My guess is probably not…..this will also affect property value in a huge way because of the stigma

    • John

      I live in the area, knew about the plant when I bought and if NO amount of exposure to Uranium then the whole world is in trouble. All foods, all waters and soils, etc. contain small amounts of uranium. Even human body contain a small quantity of uranium. Good try on the property value scare, I guess that is the only avenue left at this point but facts and reason trump false fears and things that… seem a bit suspicious… lol

    • Anonymous

      I’m in no way defending GE if they hid what was going on in the plant. But did they hide it because they knew it was unsafe, or did they hide it because they didn’t want to get in a big thing with anti-nuclear scaremongers like yourself?

    • Anonymous

      Actually, there is such a thing as a safe level of Uranium. It’s been studied to extensively. There are excellent models for effects of acute radiation exposure, and for chronic exposure those models are widely known to be highly conservative. We know the effects of mild chronic exposure through studying areas with high natural radiation levels (i.e. Boulder Colorado) and former nuclear sites (i.e. Hiroshima). The regulatory limits that the GE plant is subject to, take all of those things into account. One nice thing about radiation is that even miniscule, tiny amounts of it are very easy to detect. The equipment at that plant would likely raise an alert for radiation levels that are on par with random mildly radioactive items that you can get at any Costco.

      As for not informing – I’m not sure what they did specifically, but the place has been there for 50 years – it’s nothing new. Raising a giant sign on the side of their building is probably more detrimental to the health of their neighbourhood from the increased bloodpressure the local residents will have from having to deal with constant nutjobs who would protest the place from lack of understanding.

  • Anonymous

    Nothing more than anti-nuclear fear-mongerers ignoring science and yelling a lot. There is demonstrably nothing unsafe about the operation of this facility.

    Please be sure to have all the information and practice some logical reasoning before you react so negatively.

  • Dave P

    How many corrections do you need, seems like your story needs to check facts… Cheri DiNovo also spoke!

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.hanson.77920 Eric Hanson

    Tell me, is there any evidence that in over 50 years of operation, that this plant has caused any harm to anyone?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Massacrer007 Derwin Au-Yeung

    I am an upper-year student from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s Nuclear Engineering Program.

    All of the things that have been mentioned about the harmful side-effects of natural uranium, such as how it can kill you quickly, from this incident have pretty much been due to simple misunderstanding and the lack of general public education.

    In response to one of the previously mentioned comments about how low-enriched uranium can affect human bodies, the uranium that they are processing at this plant are nowhere near the concentration of U-235 that can be considered low-enriched uranium (20%), but rather, the uranium being processed is actually natural uranium, which contains only 0.72% U-235; the concentration found in the environment.

    Furthermore, the fact that this plant has been licensed to process uranium into uranium fuel pellets means that all regulations listed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) have been strictly followed, including following the radiation limits dictated by CNSC. These limits are set based on scientific studies of radiation exposure – in fact, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation released a study demonstrating that the nuclear technology related doses compose less than half a percent of the average annual dose of ionizing radiation:http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/09-86753_Report_2008_GA_Report_corr2.pdf

    This is due to the strict safety regulations surrounding nuclear technology – evident in the plant’s almost 50-year track record of safety.