Toronto's (somewhat) secret uranium processing plant
If I told you to imagine what a uranium processing plant looks like, what would you picture?
Maybe your mental image would be of a monstrous industrial building: perhaps a little ominous and vaguely threatening in an I-hope-this-place-won’t-irradiate-me kind of way.
Where would you picture this building being located? Probably some small rural town, or out in the sticks: somewhere where no one lives, just in case of a catastrophic Chernobyl/ Three Mile Island/ Fukushima kind of disaster, to minimize collateral damage.
If you’re someone whose imagination runs along these lines, you might be surprised to find that there is a uranium processing plant right here in Toronto.
Located in the West End at Lansdowne Ave. and Dupont St., the GE-Hitachi uranium processing plant has been converting uranium powder into uranium fuel pellets since 1965, and has been doing so in relative peace and anonymity until last year.
In November 2012, Zack Ruiter began a campaign to raise awareness on the GE-Hitachi uranium processing plant and to educate the public and local residents on what he says are the dangers posed by it.
How much of a risk does the GE-Hitachi plant really present? Ruiter may be hoping for a knee-jerk reaction from residents who are surprised to find out that uranium is being processed across the street from where they live. But does it actually pose a threat to the health and wellbeing of local residents? First let’s look at what the plant actually does.
The GE-Hitachi plant processes about 150 tonnes of uranium powder each month, all of which is inert and sealed into barrels. These barrels are shipped to Toronto from a Cameco Corporation-owned conversion facility in Port Hope, where they are processed into powder from raw uranium. The powder is converted into pellets at the GE-Hitachi plant in Toronto and then transported to Peterborough, where the pellets are inserted into rods to be used to fuel nuclear reactors.
While the powder is radioactive and does pose health risks, it would require long-term exposure for there to be any real impact on one’s well-being. So long as you aren’t spending hours a day huffing uranium powder, you should be completely fine.
But what about people who live next to the uranium plant or along the routes where uranium-laden trucks travel, couldn’t they be facing long-term exposure to radioactive material?
This is just what some critics of the plant argue; that residents who live nearby are exposed unhealthy amounts radiation over the course of years or decades.
GE-Hitachi has its own monitoring processes that ensure the safety of local residents by testing the air and soil in the area surrounding the plant. The results of these monitoring studies have consistently found that radioactivity levels are well within the acceptable limits as set out by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Canada’s nuclear material and energy regulator.
Not ones to trust Big Nuclear, Ruiter and area residents have lobbied against GE-Hitachi’s findings, prompting the Ontario Government to conduct its own tests through the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE) and the CNSC.
The government’s report corroborated GE-Hitachi’s findings. The MOE and CNSC sampled 24 different public areas in the vicinity of the processing plant and found that radioactivity levels were well within the maximum acceptable level set out by the CNSC. The typical level of background radiation in Ontario soil is about 2.5 µg/g. 22 out of the 24 samples taken near the GE-Hitachi plant were found to be below this level. The two samples that were exceeding the background level were between 2.53 and 2.93 µg/g, which are both well within the acceptable range for residential areas set out by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.
These findings take the wind out of Ruiter’s sails. The processing plant works with an inert material, which is not irradiating the site or surrounding area, and has absolutely no chance of exploding, melting down or causing any other conceivable catastrophe. The worry and handwringing is all for naught. They are simply the gut reactions of people who hear the word “uranium” and immediately picture nuclear bombs and atomic wastelands.
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To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, residents of Toronto need to learn to stop worrying and love the uranium.