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…
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.
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…