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Nuclear processing in Toronto?

Reg McQuaid

December 22, 2013

Davenport Residents Demand GE-Hitachi Shut Down Lansdowne Plant
On December 10-11, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), an Ottawa-based federal regulatory body, held a special session at the Holiday Inn on Dufferin Street in Toronto. This was in response to an outcry from neighbourhood residents who last year learned of the existence of GE-Hitachi’s nuclear fuel processing plant on Lansdowne Avenue south of Davenport. What was once an industrial area is now almost entirely residential. All that remains of a massive GE plant is this small nuclear facility, which has been producing fuel pellets for Candu reactors for over half a century.
Neighbourhood residents were shocked to learn of the nuclear operations virtually next door, and outraged to learn that CNSC had recently renewed the plant’s operating license for another ten years. This was in spite of the fact that one of the conditions for license renewal was maintaining a public information program for people in the vicinity regarding the plant and its operations. Two public meetings were held, attended by hundreds of angry residents, as a result of which MP Andrew Cash and MPP Jonah Schein demanded the CNSC hold a special session to hear residents concerns and review the license renewal. The CNSC agreed to hold a public hearing in Toronto, but refused to reopen the ten-year license renewal.
The CNSC consists of seven commissioners appointed by the government, with backgrounds in federal and provincial industry ministries, mining, nuclear power and nuclear medicine. Its president and CEO is Michael Binder. The CNSC regulates how the nuclear industry operates, but is not open to questioning the legitimacy of nuclear energy as such. The commissioners are supported in their task by various technical staff, several of whom attended the Toronto hearing and clarified various points when requested to do so by the commissioners. There did not appear to be much openness on the part of either the commissioners or the staff to the points of view being brought forward by the members of the public.
GE-Hitachi was represented at the hearing by CEO Peter Mason, assisted by public relations and industrial executives. In addition to presenting their version of the company’s operations, they were available to respond to and clarify various points when requested to do so by the commissioners. The GE-Hitachi people showed even less openness to new ways of looking at their operations, giving the impression of a stonewall around the plant to defend its existence at all costs. There is no valid reason why uranium needs to be trucked to the centre of Toronto to be processed for use in distant Candu reactors. The company’s position is that the nuclear industry is safe, and any relocation based on safety concerns is out of the question. To yield on this point would be to open the door to further challenges about uranium mining and nuclear energy.
There were about 45 oral presentations at the hearings, most by neighbourhood residents, but also some from organizations such as Ontario Clean Air Alliance, Canadian Voice of Women, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, Families Against Radiation Exposure (Port Hope), and the International Institute for Public Health. There were also over 40 written submissions to the hearings by neighbourhood individuals. One of the last presenters was Kirstin Scansen, a Nehithaw Cree woman from the uranium-mined Key Lake region of northern Saskatchewan and a student of Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria.  When she refused to step down with her questions to the panel and the company unanswered, CNSC chairman Michael Binder shut down the meeting entirely.
Virtually all presenters called for the Lansdowne plant to be shut down due to its location in a residential area, while many questioned the safety of the nuclear industry as such. Davenport MP Andrew Cash took GE-Hitachi to task over their failure to adequately inform the public about their operations, a condition of their license. He noted that they had chosen to operate “under the radar,” and questioned how the CNSC could have granted a 10-year renewal of the license, in spite of the company’s failure to comply with the terms of its previous license. He demanded that the licensing process be reopened to allow for the public participation that was lacking in the 2010 hearings. Davenport MPP Jonah Schein echoed Cash’s call, urging that the plant be shut down until new hearings could take place.  
Speaking in favor of the continued operation of the Lansdowne plant were the Canadian Nuclear Association and the Canadian Nuclear Workers Council. The latter is composed of locals of various trade unions working in the nuclear industry, and testified to its safety for workers. There is a Unifor (formerly CAW) local at the Lansdowne plant, with about 50 members. Overall there are 42,000 workers in the nuclear industry in Canada.
Process of resistance
In spite of the CNSC’s closed mind and GE-Hitachi’s stonewalling, the hearings were a success on several fronts. The fact that they took place at all is a reflection of the strong neighbourhood mobilization around this issue. Davenport MP Cash and MPP Schein were effective spokespersons for the concerns of their constituents. Both being New Democrats, they don’t owe the nuclear industry anything, and pursued the CNSC strongly over the licensing process. It was encouraging to hear dozens of people speaking out against an industry that puts profits ahead of people.
The CNSC hearings are part of a learning process, of how government regulators reflect the demands of industry, which in turn responds only to the bottom line. The people will not go away, but will continue on with the next step, until we have built the kind of neighbourhood we want. Last year a motion was introduced at Toronto City Council, calling for GE-Hitachi to phase out production of nuclear fuel in this residential area. This motion was referred to committee for study and recommendation. City council must now act in the interests of Toronto residents and demand the relocation of this plant.

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