For decades, a nuclear fuel fabrication facility has operated on the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario. Here, in a small industrial area, natural uranium oxide is brought to be compressed into small pellets, which are used for fuel in Canadian nuclear reactors. The uranium is not enriched, as Canadian nuclear reactors use natural uranium with .7% uranium-235. The material is identical to what is found in rocks and soil around the world, although it is purified and concentrated. It’s about as common in the crust of the earth as tin, and, on rare occasions, may be found in a nearly pure oxide form in nature, as the result of geological forces.
No nuclear activities actually go on at the facility and the material does not result in any more radiation than would be found in many rock quarries. The material is not a radiation hazard and only slightly toxic, considerably less toxic than substances like cadmium or mercury.
The plant also has never been a secret. Granted, there are no big signs displaying the fact that the product produced on site happens to be uranium, but its operated completely in the open. Copies of relevant licenses and permits can be obtained from the Canadian government. Workers at the plant are free to discuss the nature of their employment openly. If you knocked on the door of the plant and asked whoever came to open it what happens there, they would surely tell you that they make uranium fuel pellets. There’s absolutely nothing hidden about it.
However, it seems that most in the community were simply unaware that the plant existed or that in this normal looking building uranium was being made into pellets. They just went about their every day lives presuming that thenondescript building must be doing some non-scary industrial process, like storing large amounts of chlorine gas or hydrofluoric acid.
Until one day someone found out the horrible truth, that had never even been hidden to begin with…
Via the Globe and Mail:
Residents shocked by uranium facility that has been hiding in plain sight
For almost half a century residents of a west-end community in Toronto have lived side-by-side with a uranium processing facility, without ever noticing it. But the years of blissful ignorance have seemingly come to an end and this ‘new’ knowledge of the plant has left many in the community afraid and pushing for change.
In a nondescript, four-floor building on Lansdowne Avenue, just north of Dupont Street, a G.E. Hitachi Canada facility has been turning uranium – found in small amounts in rocks, soil, water and plants – into pellets, to be used in the production of nuclear fuel, for decades. (Uranium, in its natural form, emits low-levels of radiation.)
Information on the plant’s activities, its safety records and up-to-date compliance reports can all be found on the company’s website. Yet most residents had not only had no idea about this information, they didn’t even know it was a uranium plant.
But as word leaked out, the community held four meetings in the last month to raise awareness, soothe fears and figure out what’s next for the neighbourhood. More than 100 people showed up to the latest meeting on Saturday held by local Member of Parliament Andrew Cash, who said the residents “need to get answers.”
Reg McQuaid was at Mr. Cash’s meeting. He has lived with his wife in the Davenport area for over 30 years, at one point living just down the road from the facility. He admitted that he once saw a radiation symbol on the building, but never paid it much attention.
“I was surprised because I had no idea there was anything of that nature there but since it looked like a very ordinary building and I could see no sign of anything I associate with nuclear energy I didn’t pay much attention,” Mr. McQuaid said.
Ignorant no more, residents are demanding the facility be closed or moved, even though the facility has no history of safety issues and still meets the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. It has also received G.E.’s internal Global Star Award twice in the last decade for excellent health and safety performance.
None of that matters to Debbie Medeiros. She has lived a block away from the uranium plant for the last seven years without knowing it existed and now she wants it gone.
Despite the fact the facility has been operating safely unbeknownst to residents, she believes the risk of exposure to radiation is too much.
“It should be further away… they need to relocate,” Ms. Medeiros said.
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.
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.
Public ignorance combined with scary words like “uranium” and “nuclear” always seems to bring out the villagers with pitchforks.
In this case, the facility should absolutely not have to defend its practices or reputation. They were in the community long before most of those demanding they be shut down moved there. They never were a secret and their business is fully legal and complies with all regulations. Citizens the likes of Dawn Withers have only themselves to blame for moving to an area near the facility that terrifies them. Demanding it be shut down is like moving next to an airport and then complaining that its noisy and has to close, forcing travelers to go elsewhere.
None the less, GE/Hitachi has responded to these baseless concerns by trying to be more open about their plant, even inviting the media in to take videos of their operations. I doubt that will actually do much, of course.
A few things people might be scared to find out:
- There are industrial facilities all over the place, and they are not required to have a billboard outside advertising exactly what they do and what kind of materials are used on the site. If you have an extreme phobia that there might be something going around near you that involves an especially scary material or process, you should make an effort to actually find out what is going on at such facilities. It’s not hard. Most are not secretive. Google is your friend. If you don’t actually look up what they do, then don’t complain when you find out that it’s something you are afraid of.
- If you are really afraid of naturally occurring radioactive material in industry, then I have bad news for you. There’s probably a place near you that has some on site. Aircraft facilities routinely have large amounts of depleted uranium on site. Thorium-based welding rods are extremely common. Industrial facilities use uranium-shielded x-ray machines all the time.
- If you find radioactivity scary then this is nothing. The substances here could be handled with your bare hands. However, there are extremely dangerous radioisotopes at your local hospital. The average hospital has enough radioactive material on hand to literally kill you. It’s so potent some of it will kill flesh on contact. Yes, they have it at your local hospital. They may even have some at local clinics you never even noticed.
- The soil in your back yard, where your kids play and at the school your kids attends contains measurable amounts of uranium. You can’t get away from it. Some of the rocks in your back yard do too. Not only that, but glassware and ceramics with concentrated uranium in them are routinely sold at antique shops and flea markets without any oversight. You might even own some!
- If this really scares you, because you fear some kind of industrial accident, then I have bad news: This is absolutely nothing compared to some of the things that you are surrounded by. Chlorine gas is stored at water treatment plants and transported in large train cars. These can and have ruptured and when they do, they can kill. Hydrofluoric acid, chlorine dioxide, hydrazine and other dangerous chemicals are routinely used in industry and they can and have killed if they are released accidentally. Additionally, natural gas pipeline and propane storage facilities can explode and take out whole neighborhoods. Part of this is the price of living in an industrial society. The risks are manageable if proper precautions are taken, but they are there.
- If you are concerned about “anything associated with nuclear energy” I have more bad news for you – all energy is nuclear. The universe operates on nuclear energy. The energy you are using to read this right now came from nuclear energy. It may have taken a long path from sun to light to glucose to you, but it originated as nuclear energy.
This entry was posted on Sunday, December 9th, 2012 at 9:41 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Enviornment, Just LAME, Nuclear, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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