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Activists Are Lashing Out at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission

A recent hearing regarding a little-known nuclear facility in Toronto resulted in some angry activists who seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

The crinkled tarp is not too reassuring. Photos by the author.

In response to recent controversy around GE-Hitachi’s uranium processing plant in the heart of Toronto, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission held a rare meeting this week to allow the public to voice their concerns about this factory and its presence in the middle of a densely populated residential area. Although the factory processes 53% of the uranium used in Canadian reactors, local residents and elected officials told the commission that they were kept in the dark about what the factory does. As the meeting progressed, many speakers shifted their attention from the GE-Hitachi uranium plant in particular to the Canadian nuclear industry at large. They condemned the commission for setting pathetic nuclear safety standards, directly enabling the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world, and helping to create a vast legacy of radioactive waste that will inevitably outlast, or destroy, humanity.


It was a depressing scene, appropriately set at a Holiday Inn far from the uranium plant itself. Nothing was at stake for GE-Hitachi at this meeting. Back in 2010, with most Torontonians unaware of the uranium plant, the CNSC granted the facility a decade long extension on its operating license. Providing speakers with only an illusion of participation, the commission agreed to listen to their concerns while having explicitly stated that they will not reconsider GE-Hitachi’s license. Those who had applied in advance, and were approved by the commission to speak, were given ten minutes each to make their opinions known and to ask questions.

The speakers brought with them hundreds of questions. So when GE-Hitachi and the CNSC inevitably failed to address most concerns, activists shouted at the commission and demanded answers from the back of the meeting room. After two days of fairly consistent heckling, the CNSC’s curmudgeonly old president, Michael Binder, grew increasingly annoyed. He repeatedly told speakers to “hurry up” or to “get to the point,” even cutting some presentations short of their allotted ten-minute length. When 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, refused to relinquish her seat with her questions unanswered, Binder shut down the meeting entirely. The last two speakers on the agenda, residents from downtown Toronto, delivered their prepared speeches to an emptied boardroom, while representatives of GE-Hitachi and the CNSC were conspicuously absent.


During GE-Hitachi’s presentation they argued that for fifty-eight years their facility has operated safely, posing no risk to the surrounding communities. Its air, water, and soil emissions are far below the CNSC’s prescribed limits for an industrially zoned nuclear facility. The company assured the commission that even catastrophic accidents, like the derailment of a train into the plant, or an accident involving a truck carrying either uranium dioxide or uranium pellets, have been accounted for in their emergency response plan—a document that they have made available on their website in the interest of transparency, despite the fact that it is partially redacted. The company also combatted claims that they have not diligently informed the public about this facility—they have placed ads in various newspapers, sent out flyers, built a new website, and even held an open house which about thirty people attended.

But in contrast to GE’s claims of extensive community outreach, resident after resident testified that they were shocked when they found out what the facility does—either through a door-to-door campaign led by local activists or through articles in Toronto’s weekly NOW Magazine. Andrew Cash, the elected Member of Parliament for Toronto’s Davenport riding, told the commission that he first heard about the facility in the Toronto Star. Calling the company’s public information program “a failure for the better part of fifty years,” Cash told the commission that “too many people still don’t know what this factory does… This factory is literally surrounded by residential streets, houses, low rise townhouses, low income high rises, and soon a huge development of new towers, townhouses and mixed use units which will house well over 4,000 new residents… there is no other facility like this in any other urban area of the country.”


One by one, armed with books, reports, and pertinent stacks of paper, veteran anti-nuclear activists confronted CNSC staff like old adversaries—some of them speaking before the board for the third, fifth, or seventh time. Many pointed out that although the GE-Hitachi plant is meeting the commission’s approved safe limits for emissions, these limits are dangerously relaxed. In what is perhaps the most alarming example of this tendency, GE-Hitachi is permitted, for example, to output up to 9,000 kilograms of uranium per year into the sewer system. Although the company actually outputs only a fraction of this amount, less than 3 kilograms a year, the prescribed “safe” limit is clearly ridiculous. As one speaker, Dr. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, told the commission, their “use of the word ‘safe’ is misleading and not scientific. You can claim that the levels of exposure are within current limits, but you cannot say that they are safe.”

Another presentation used simple math to show that the CNSC’s prescribed limit for acceptable background radiation will lead, through accumulation in the environment over time, to the certain extinction of the entire human species. Representing the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, Gord Albright told the commissioners that “whenever we add radiation to the environment people die who would not otherwise have died. By your safe standards, supposedly, which is 1 milliSievert per year, is based on one additional cancer per 20,000 people… Over 20,000 years, one excess cancer per 20,000 people represents the average population of the earth over that period of time. This is a number of additional deaths that dwarfs all the human slaughter that has ever taken place in the world, including all the wars that have ever been fought… Just because these people have not yet been born, and have no voice, does not mean that they don’t matter.”


A CNSC staffer, Patsy Thompson, refuted Albright’s claim that radiation exposure can lead to cancer. “We have done a study of more than 40,000 Canadian nuclear workers who had been exposed to several Sieverts of dose over a very long period, and that study shows that there is no relationship between cancer death and radiation exposure,” she said. “There is no relationship between cancer mortality and tritium exposure.”

Being told his time was up, Albright was visibly distressed. He grabbed the microphone once more, and after apologizing for speaking out of turn, he interjected that “it’s beyond credibility to claim that exposure to radiation causes no additional cancer as Patsy Thompson is. There is absolutely no scientific basis for this. There is no basis of experience, no basis of logic. It reflects on CNSC’s scientific credibility that they allow statements like this to continue to be made in their name.”

But it was the last speech to the CNSC, by a furious Kirstin Scansen, which did the most to dispel the atmosphere of “bullshit,” “lies,” and “propaganda” that consistently saturated the meeting, to borrow her own words. She took issue with the CNSC’s sustained denial that Canada, as a signatory of a non-proliferation agreement, has anything to do with the spread of nuclear weaponry worldwide, reminding the board that “while Canada may have claimed its commitment to a nuclear weapons free world, we know very well that India began its nuclear warhead program after receiving a gift of Canadian technology in the 1970s.” This tendency is ongoing—as recently as 2006, the CNSC approved SRB’s sale of radioactive tritium, an essential component in building hydrogen bombs, to Iran. GE is no saint either—a current manufacturer of drones, they led the world in sales of nuclear weapons systems until a consumer boycott forced them to stop.

She attacked GE-Hitachi for claiming that its “natural uranium,” or powdered uranium dioxide, was not dangerous, reminding the company that “the Denesuline men, who carried sacks of your beloved ‘natural uranium’ at the world’s first uranium mine in Port Radium, Northwest Territories, died horrible, painful deaths by cancer and bone cirrhosis, a condition where bone tissue dies and bones collapse.”

She condemned GE-Hitachi and the CNSC’s denial that the uranium plant in Toronto produces any nuclear waste, and the seemingly haphazard Canadian plan for dealing with radioactive waste by burying it forever in deep underground repositories. “We have no way of knowing that the surrounding rock will not crack and expose ecosystems to uncontainable, extremely deadly, radioactivity,” she said. “I am against the continued operation of the uranium processing facility in the city of Toronto because it is a key cog in the machine that creates low, medium, and high level nuclear waste that humanity has absolutely no clue what to do with but is currently seeking to situate on Indigenous territories.”

And finally, before demanding to know more about a toxic spill that happened just weeks ago near her home in Saskatchewan, she concluded her speech by relating the perilous nuclear pillage of Canada to a broader, stubborn colonial attitude. In a human appeal that was undoubtedly missed by the nuclear bureaucrats, she told the board that their “ancestors signed treaties with my ancestors, the basic tenets of which are that we would accept you as family and you would have the great privilege of residing on our territories, with us as our relations. Cousins, in exchange, you agreed not to damage or exploit the land. Undermining the integrity of other living things is a right that no group of humans can possess, because as I have learned, it is not a right the Creator gave to us or to anyone, so we could not give it to you. It is this teaching that enabled my people to survive in partnership with the land, water, and animals for tens of thousands of years. And it is because you lack these teachings that you continue to put your own families, communities, stakeholders, and a nation at great risk. Over the course of this meeting I have heard Toronto residents express to you passionately that the GE-Hitachi uranium processing facility should not be located so closely to a residential region in Toronto… this processing facility should not be located in the City of Toronto because it should not be located anywhere at all. The nuclear industry does not belong anywhere in Canada, nor does it belong anywhere in the world.”