West-end Toronto residents shocked by local uranium facility
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West-end residents are looking for answers after they discovered that an unassuming building on Lansdowne Ave. is actually a nuclear facility licensed to produce nearly 2,000 tonnes of radioactive uranium dioxide pellets each year.
The General Electric-Hitachi plant has been processing natural uranium powder into centimetre-long pellets that are assembled into fuel bundles elsewhere for Canada’s nuclear reactors since 1965.
“The shocking thing is that they can be there for so long and keep things so quiet,” said area resident Dawn Withers.
GE Canada spokeswoman Kim Warburton said the plant handles only natural uranium which is “not dangerous” compared to its enriched counterpart. She said the company’s sign is clearly visible. “GE-Hitachi is a nuclear business . . . it’s on our website.”
Withers, a mother of four who lives about a five-minute drive from the facility, has helped organize a Nov. 15 community meeting to raise awareness.
She said she and others were caught completely off-guard when an anti-nuclear activist arrived in Toronto several weeks ago to warn them about the plant.
That activist was Zach Ruiter, a 29-year-old Trent University graduate who became known several years ago for his vocal opposition to another GE-Hitachi facility in Peterborough.
Concerned about awareness of the Toronto plant, he decided to door-knock in the Lansdowne and Dupont St. area earlier this fall to alert the community to what he calls an environmental and public health hazard.
“People living close to the plant thought it made air conditioners,” said Ruiter. “I couldn’t find anyone who knew about GE-Hitachi’s uranium processing.”
Surrounded by a chain-link fence, the plant is owned by U.S.-based General Electric-Hitachi and is licensed by Canada’s federal nuclear power regulator.
The facility is ranked as a “medium-risk facility” by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission due to the sheer amount of uranium handled.
It has for decades played an integral role in Ontario’s nuclear industry, a middleman in the lengthy process that sees raw uranium mined from the ground and transformed into energy.
Warburton, GE Canada’s vice-president of communications and public affairs, said the Lansdowne facility receives barrels of uranium dioxide powder, an inert substance, from a Port Hope uranium conversion plant run by Cameco Corp., one of the world’s largest uranium miners.
While she would not say how it is shipped to Toronto, Warburton said the powder arrives in sealed barrels.
It is then compressed into pellets and shipped to the company’s Peterborough location where it is turned into fuel bundles and sent to nuclear power plants.
Doug Brugge, a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said the natural uranium handled by the plant poses serious health risks, including cancer, depending on the level of exposure.
According to Brugge, who studies the health effects of uranium exposure, internal exposure (such as inhaling the powder form) has been proven to cause kidney and neurological damage as well as reproductive issues such as birth defects.
Of course, those health effects result from severe and prolonged internal exposure.
But Sheila Muir, a longtime Parkdale resident whose young family moved to a house about two kilometres from the facility just over a year ago, said she was “shocked and very, very distressed” to hear of what she sees as a potential health risk in her neighbourhood.
“We as parents feel like we don’t have any control over it,” said Muir, who was unaware until only recently of the facility’s existence.
Councillor Gord Perks, whose ward lies just south of the Lansdowne plant, said he, too, was only recently alerted to the operation.
“I’ve been trying all my adult life to end Ontario’s dependence on nuclear power and I’ll just keep plugging away,” said Perks.
“The risks associated with uranium processing are, in my view, unacceptable no matter where you put the (plant).”
So, how could the nuclear processing facility go unnoticed by local residents for so long?
In 2011, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission granted the GE-Hitachi facilities in Toronto and Peterborough a 10-year renewed licence. As part of the process, the company testified in Ottawa that it had improved its public consultation process and made an effort to keep nearby residents informed.
An operation that for decades has quietly shuttled radioactive material in and out of Toronto, GE-Hitachi’s Lansdowne operation is now under the microscope as the number of residents set to attend the Nov. 15 community meeting — co-ordinated through a Facebook event — continues to swell.
“No matter how safe they say their production at their plant, there are risks,” said Withers. “There are risks and nobody knew.”
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