What Should Toronto Do About The GE-Hitatchi Uranium Plant? (Who wins & who loses?)

We bring good bullshit to life…

 

I went to the open house for Toronto’s GE-Hitachi uranium fuel processing plant today. It was a rather dull experience, a big hall with a few signs on each corner. Each set of signs was attended to by a few of their staff- they were friendly, and they had answers ready for most of my questions. At the front, there were some tables with muffins and some drinks- free food is likely to sway some people I guess.

So I walked around and asked some questions. The answers I got were mostly what I was expecting- the plant is safe, and there’s nothing to worry about. The problem is, my bullshit detector badge turned colour after the second or third question. I also caught a GE-Hitachi safety engineer agree with me on a design problem with Canada’s CANDU nuclear reactors…

CANDU Nuclear Fuel Rods… (pellets go inside)

The plant makes uranium pellets that are used in the fuel rods of nuclear reactors. The fuel rods are disposable (after 100,000 or so years), some fuel can be reprocessed and some becomes nuclear waste (also disposable in 1000’s of years.) If you look at the map of the CANDU fuel cycle below, the plant is in the ‘Enrichment’ stage of the process.

CANDU Fuel Cycle…

Though the plant is beside the railroad, the uranium arrives at GE-Hitachi’s West Toronto plant by truck. According to the people who live across the street, plant workers scan the outside of the truck (and its tires) with Geiger counters before they are let through the gate.

According to GE, the powdered uranium is carried in the truck in sealed barrels- I’m guessing they are the same sort of barrels that burst-open on the MCS Altona, a contaminated ship that spent most of 2011 sitting in limbo in Vancouver’s harbour. GE must also be knowledgeable that these barrels could bust open, or they wouldn’t be using Geiger counters on the trucks.

At the Toronto plant they take the uranium power and turn it into milled uranium pellets. This is a ceramic process similar to baking pottery (but much hotter). Once the pellets are baked, they are ground into the proper dimensions and are checked for quality. When I asked how quickly they could go through that process end-to-end, they said it would be about five days.

All of that heat requires some energy. I don’t know all of the gasses they use in the process, but GE has confirmed that hydrogen is used. This came up last week when Zach Ruiter has said that there was an evacuation due to a fire- GE responded saying it was an evacuation due to an overfilled hydrogen tank. He also said that the overfilling problem has been fixed now.

GE’s Safety Manager assured me, as he assured the crowd last week, that there was no way that there would be an accident at  the plant. I mentioned to him that this is the same thing that GE said about Fukushima- he tensed up with a ‘yeah, but’ just as I expected. This fuel processing plant is not nearly as dangerous as a nuclear power plant- but, the point is, unexpected things do happen.

He responded by first saying that the CANDU reactors are a different design- exactly the queue I was waiting for. So I say to him- “The CANDU design releases a lot more tritium into the environment than most plant designs, right?”. He nodded, and accepted that- so, it’s official now, even GE won’t deny it. The Parti Quebecois took a brave move shutting theirs down.

When I pointed out that it may be outrageous to have a uranium processing plant in a populated neighbourhood he responded saying “It wasn’t populated when we got here”. This is very true- it’s inconceivable to imagine anyone would plan for such a thing to happen. Equally, it is inconceivable a city would give planning permits for building new residential units across the street from a uranium processing plant. Who’s responsible for this?

There’s a row of houses at the plant’s front gate- they were built about five years ago. It’s on a small street, and the trucks (full of barrels of uranium) have to make a fairly sharp turn (off of Landsdowne, a busy city artery) to get into the plant. The uranium is stored in a shed that’s less than 25 feet from some houses.

Everything about this setup is a nightmare- there’s an accident waiting to happen All it takes is a jackknifed truck to tip over- or, perhaps, a truck with bad brakes could come barrelling into  the uranium truck and create one hell of a hazmat situation. In a best-case, some people would have a seriously increased risk of cancer after inhaling the uranium powder. At the worst case it won’t be Fukushima, the contamination could be cleaned up rather quickly (weeks, not centuries).

Now, let’s talk about Nitrogen- it’s really explosive- and can really be a gas! The plant uses nitrogen in the process of making the uranium pellets. The problem with safety plans is that ‘shit happens’- ask the people of Japan. Did you know that Fukushima blew-up because of a hydrogen explosion?

So, GE got a couple of things wrong in their explanation to me. First, accidents can happen. Next, if the hydrogen system malfunctioned and exploded, the explosion would be (in some ways) very similar to what happened at Fukushima. The contamination, however, would be nowhere near as horrible if this plant blew-up. So, Zach Ruiter’s statement that if there’s an explosion, “there goes Toronto” is a bit over-the-top.

And herein lies the problem. Both sides of this dispute are playing extreme ends of the argument- Zach talks about apocalypse and GE-Hitachi paints us pictures of pretty rainbows. To put it simply, they both seem to have lost grasp of honesty and common-sense.

So, what should we do about this plant?

I have no doubt in my mind that, sooner than later, this plant needs to be relocated- it’s insane to process uranium in a residential neighbourhood. What happens if one of the trucks flips-open on Spadina? What happens if it hits a propane tanker? Is it worth the risk of finding out?

The neighbourhood has outgrown the plant, and it is time for them to leave. The City of Toronto (and the federal government) should be demanding that GE-Hitachi commits to a date.

What are the dangers of shutting-down the plant?

This plant has been in operations for 50 years now- many tonnes of uranium have passed in and out of their doors. It’s quite likely there are parts of the building that are contaminated. Remember the problem with PCB’s in the neighbourhood? It’s possible that taking down this plant could be worse.

Even if it’s possible to safely take down the building, I’d hate to live across the street while they’re doing that. If contamination is found, it’s going to be a long and very expensive process to clean it up. This could cause serious interruption to people in the community.

What about the jobs the plant creates?

I was told today that about 50 people work at the plant- that’s probably less jobs lost than when Zellers moved out of the Galleria Mall this summer. While it would be unfortunate to see the jobs leaving the city, the impact of the lost jobs is nowhere near the impact that could occur if a truck full of uranium caught fire (a more extreme example).

What about the proposed condo across the street?

There’s a condo being planned to be built right across the street from the plant. It’s my understanding that they are still at the pre-sales process, and it doesn’t look like the construction has started. The project should be halted until we’ve evaluated the risks and timelines for taking down the uranium plant. People investing in that building have the right to understand the risks they face before investing their life’s savings in it.

Why wouldn’t GE-Hitachi want to close the plant?

First, there’s the obvious- it will cost them a lot of money to relocate the plant. The may also be uncomfortable about the costs for demolishing the building and cleaning-up the lot.

The other big problem for GE-Hitachi is that they may have a difficult time finding a new location. People in other cities and towns may block any proposal to build. Zach Ruiter and his anti-nuclear crowd will probably do everything they can to stop it too- their goal is to stop nuclear power, not to make the neighbourhood more safe.

Until GE Hitachi can find a new location, there’s no way they can commit to leave. In many ways Zach Ruiter’s crowd are just as much an impediment to getting rid of the plant as GE is.

How can we help force them to close the plant?

First, we must engage with our political leaders and demand that they take action. They need to understand that their political careers are based on them making the right decisions about the plant.

Next, until they can provide us with a date that they will relocate the plant- we should no longer buy or contract  GE or Hitachi products. This Christmas, if there is a gift you want to buy that’s made by one of these two companies- chose a competitor’s brand instead. The same goes with the City of Toronto- they should do everything they can within the law to avoid contracting their products.

I’m starting my part in this boycott now…

Is closing the plant West Toronto’s most important battle?

Probably not. Yes, nuclear power is an important issue on a global scale- but, we have a much bigger issue in this neighbourhood. It’s all of those trains that run near our homes, their diesel fumes are creating a much bigger health hazard than the uranium plant.

Who’s benefitting from this situation?

Zach Ruiter and his anti-nuclear campaigners are gaining a lot of benefit- they are getting attention for their cause to ban nuclear reactors (one I agree with). They were able to educate an entire community with their meeting last week.

Equally, their close associates at the NDP will benefit. For example, the NDP’s Cheri Dinovo has already used this issue to grandstand her party’s standing on nuclear power- Andrew Cash is also siding with the anarchists. Curiously, Dinovo is also quite active in another battle that Zach and other anarchists have been involved in- the fight against Marineland and animal cruelty. (The more I dig into the anarchists the more these patterns emerge)

McGuinty is suffering a lot because of his energy policy- wouldn’t it be great for the NDP to turn up the heat and paralyse nuclear power?

There’s also a good possibility that the people who run the diesel trains will benefit- suddenly, the community has a new focus on the uranium plant.

Who’s getting hurt?

As it appears is normal in any protest organized by the anarchists- the 99% have suffered, and the 1% have been hardly wounded so far. The people who are really getting hurt are the property owners who live nearby. After all of this publicity, they can be pretty much guaranteed that their property values will drop from this.

I’ll keep following the story and will keep you all up-to-date as things progress.  I’m really curious to see what happens next…

Permanent link to this article: http://www.genuinewitty.com/2012/11/23/what-should-toronto-do-about-the-ge-hitatchi-uranium-plant-who-wins-who-loses/

18 comments

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  1. The Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen gas and skinned in flammable material.

    1. You’re right- guess I was up too late writing this article, thanks for the editorial assistance!

    • Richard on November 24, 2012 at 00:29
    • Reply

    Nuclear power has the safety issues, but it’s relatively clean – very clean compared to some alternatives. What feasible alternatives do we have? We’re nowhere close yet on wind and solar, and coal does terrible things to the atmosphere.

      • Standing Water on November 24, 2012 at 15:22
      • Reply

      The clear answer from the anarchist camp is that they are anarcho-primitivists who think civilization can be “ended”, thereby restoring the “purity” of their “earth.” If they’re honest, they come right out and say the endciv schtick. If they’re dishonest, or useful idiots picked up by the anarchist-endciv cult, they might say something about “sustainable energy”, without understanding that such cannot, especially in the short/medium term, produce as much energy as cleanly as nuclear power can. In a perfect world, we would not use nuclear, but we do not live in a perfect world.

      1. In a perfect world, people who pay union dues wouldn’t have to pay to support violent end-of-the-world cults…

  2. I think think the point you are trying to make is that hydrogen is explosive (it is) not nitrogen (not on it’s own it isn’t).

    • The Hammer on November 24, 2012 at 14:21
    • Reply

    THis plant moving is the worst nightmare for Zach and his sheep. Then they would no longer have any excuse to get people all riled up.

    1. Oh, they’d find another reason…

    • K. C. on November 24, 2012 at 15:50
    • Reply

    The GE Hitachi uranium pellet plant offers no significant risk to the community…and far less than many already in place. Unfettered residential sprawl, bikers and pedestrians being maimed and killed by reckless motorists, contaminated soil, overhead high tension power lines, cell towers and the list goes on. What is the alternative? Drive them out and build a couple of condo towers, making another developer rich while condemning the community to even more risk?…no thanks.

    1. I agree with you – but, ultimately, the plant has to go one day…

    • K. C. on November 24, 2012 at 21:41
    • Reply

    You’re very right about that…just as the locomotive and transformer plants have disappeared. It will take time as you have already indicated. In response to your reply to Standing Water, it is a shame that the elected representatives support the agenda of such a marginal character and his self-absorbed desire for attention and aggrandizement. Despite his own attempts to label himself a “resident” and interested on in the safety of the community, his interests are nothing of the sort. His agenda, while sometimes focused on nuclear energy is just as likely to be with anything in which he can disturb the status quo and replace it with an apocalyptic doom scenario. That is not looking out for the interests of the community. Interesting aside; employees at GE Hitachi are almost all members of one or the other of Power Workers Union or Canadian Auto Workers. The hypocrisy of both Mr. Cash and Mr. Schein’s claims they never knew the facility was there and that therefor should immediately condemn its existence before investigating it simply boggles the mind.

    • The Hammer on November 25, 2012 at 07:38
    • Reply

    They will. They will always have one. But they will probably not get another one that will grab this much attention.

    • The Hammer on November 25, 2012 at 11:10
    • Reply

    If Cash was a conservative they would be all over him. But he is NDP so they will spin it into a positive for him.

    • K. C. on December 10, 2012 at 23:05
    • Reply

    Greg, during the Saturday meeting I noticed many of the regulars who have ambushed each of the three meetings. There is Z. R. and C. F. and the guy with the web cam (who is he?) and professor J.D. Who was the mathematics professor deemed a nuclear expert? And who was the interesting McMaster professor of Nuclear Safety who spoke at the end? Did you record the names of the other activist plants?…particularly the woman you photographed who was continually chatting with Jonah Schein? It was staggering what cowards the elected representatives prove themselves to be…hiding behind others while the community searches for answers to the vexatious allegations of local danger. They are responsible to take a stand on these allegations and respond:

    1. Is this the GE Hitachi plan safe as defined by modern, provincial, federal and municipal regulatory standards?
    2. If the GE Hitachi plant meets and exceeds these standards, then for the sake of their constituents state publicly that there is minimal risk.
    3. If the regulations are not met then let us know and shut it down…immediately!!
    4. If it is simply inappropriate to have this industrial island in the middle of this rapidly changing community, then set about to have it removed.

    Geez, they are so Tory-like!!

    Anyway, any information about the instigators would be help clear the wheat from the chaff.

    • thedesmodes on February 27, 2013 at 23:39
    • Reply

    you said that they take the uranium by truck but they don’t they take it by train.

    1. That’s right- the train lines are beside the plant, but GE-Hitachi told me that they aren’t used by the plant. All uranium and the subsequently manufactured pellets are carried by truck. (or, occasionally, one falls out into the back of Homer Simpson’s shirt…)

  3. As a quick (perhaps rather ignorant, and certainly alarmist) aside…what’s the risk that some terrorist group could get their hands on a truckload of these pellets and, as postulated, a propane tanker, then recreate Sunrise Propane – with a nuclear element?
    Again, professing ignorance…how bad would such a purposeful attack wind up being?

    Paranoid…yeah, a little, I guess. After reading about how the Oshawa group – not Al-Quaeda, just a group of local quacks – got close to blowing a hole in the CSIS building at Front & John, it’s unlikely but possible.
    It doesn’t have to be Al-Quaeda – what if, say, some smart but loony anarchists decided to teach the world a lesson about the dangers of nuclear power….eek…

    • Ashley Z on October 6, 2013 at 00:54
    • Reply

    “If you look at the map of the CANDU fuel cycle below, the [Hitachi] plant is in the ‘Enrichment’ stage of the process.”

    That’s not correct. ‘Enrichment’ means increasing the ratio of U-235 to U-238 in fuel, which does not happen at the Hitachi plant. The Hitachi plant doesn’t change the isotopic ratio of the fuel, and CANDU reactors in Ontario use non-enriched, natural uranium. That’s the yellow arrow on the diagram.

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