I've known for a while that the four-storey grey GE building at 1025 Lansdowne harboured some process tied to our waste-oblivious nuclear industry, but it's stayed off my radar - just as it seems to have for other enviros.
But recently I learned that an activist fresh from a drawn-out battle against a similar GE facility in Peterborough had relocated to T.O. and was starting to campaign.
I figured I'd better learn more. So one afternoon earlier this month, I joined Zach Ruiter of Safe and Green Energy Peterborough as he went door to door informing locals of something it appears they didn't know: the GE Hitachi plant north of Dupont has been processing uranium into fuel pellets for the province's CANDU reactors for the last 50 years.
Invariably, it hit those living across the street like a bombshell. Ruiter explained that uranium dioxide powder supplied by Cameco Corp. in Port Hope is processed in the plant into hard ceramic pellets that are then transported to GE Hitachi in Peterborough, where they're slipped into rods and fuel bundles for reactors.
And it looks like the operation will continue for another 10 years. In early 2011, both the Lansdowne facility and the Peterborough one received a joint licence renewal following Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission hearings in Ottawa.
The fact that something radioactive is going on in the neighbourhood is greeted with astonishment and scepticism. "That sounds weird. I don't believe it," said a man walking a yellow lab on Brandon.
I admit I also felt seriously underwhelmed. There are no visible markers on the building and fence indicating the presence of radioactive or dangerous materials. Just signs warning about video surveillance.
Without noise or obvious signs of pollution, GE Hitachi's uranium business has been low-key. The building is not on Toronto Public Health's online ChemTRAC database list of places where toxic substances are used. Some enviros are aware of the site, but are up to the gills with nuclear waste and power plant issues.
When I contact GE Canada, company spokesperson Kim Warburton tells me GE Hitachi's signage meets Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) requirements and doesn't need to go further "because we use uranium that is not enriched."
Uranium powder, she says, "is safe to handle with standardized controls and does not emit a significant amount of external radiation either on- or off-site."
Many who follow nuclear issues, however, remain wary. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility observes that "the industry generally has a policy of keeping as low a profile as possible. No news is good news."
The problem, he says, is that uranium dioxide powder can potentially become airborne in fugitive emissions from windows, doors and cracks and other areas not fully sealed. "Radioactive material, when it's inhaled, adheres to the lungs, irradiates the lungs and causes damage," he says. "The real question is why such a facility is even in a residential area. It should be in a special designated area and surrounded by an exclusion zone. The plant should be planning to move."
A few days after my tour, I drop into a Dupont Improvement Group meeting and talk to member Richard Mongiat, who's lived three blocks from the plant for a decade. It has "always been a mysterious building," he tells me. "I knew it was attached to GE, but I've never really known what's been going on there.
"There were a ton of toxic plants," Mongiat says, referring to the area's industrial past, and contrasting several ongoing brownfield cleanups with quiet, unobtrusive, neatly manicured 1025 Lansdowne.
Ruiter says he isn't surprised by the lack of local awareness. In 2010, when he intervened in the CNSC licence renewal hearings, he noticed that while there were nearly 50 objections from Peterborough residents, there were none from T.O.
The same thought seems to have occurred to CNSC, the regulator. In transcripts of the 2010 hearing, CNSC member Alan Graham asks GE Hitachi president Peter Mason if those near the Lansdowne site are aware of the presence of radioactive material.
"We do have a website where we post information. We also keep people within half a kilometre informed of what we are doing," Mason replies. "We have a long history of dialogue with the residents there."
The CNSC ultimately deemed GE Hitachi's public engagement efforts to be adequate.
(In Peterborough, the stakes were higher. GE Hitachi initially sought to process low-enriched uranium there, but then withdrew the plan.)
GE's Warburton tells me the company liaised regularly with a residents' group until the organization disbanded in the early 2000s. In advance of the 2010 hearings GE Hitachi placed notices in a Toronto daily and on its website. "There was no door-to-door or drop for the neighbours," Warburton added.
A leaflet GE delivered door to door in 2008, advising of a planned emergency exercise, did not mention the plant's function. In 1999, a fire in the vent stack caused the evacuation of some neighbouring properties.
"There are so many other fights going on that this one hasn't gotten as much attention as it should," Greenpeace Canada nuke campaigner Shawn-Patrick Stensil tells me.
"The GE Hitachi facility is part of the nuclear supply chain. This fuel chain is high-risk for Toronto."