David Fernandes sat with his young son at a table facing members of a nuclear safety tribunal, expressing the shock he felt when he found out he lives near a plant that produces nuclear fuel.
The “devastating” thoughts that his five-year-old boy may be harmed by going to a community park just 350 metres from the BWXT Nuclear Energy plant, on Lansdowne Avenue north of Dupont Street, are “difficult for me to express,” Fernandes said, speaking to the tribunal members on a raised platform in a west-end Toronto ballroom.
“I do not want BWXT to continue operating in my neighbourhood, or anywhere in Toronto,” he said.
It was the kind of impassioned plea that was echoed again and again Monday and Tuesday at the Casa do Alentejo Community Centre on Dupont Street as the commission’s five-member tribunal heard public submissions on a controversial application to renew the plant’s licence for 10 years.
BWXT manufacturers pellets for nuclear fuel bundles using uranium dioxide powder. More than half the uranium pellets that fuel Ontario’s nuclear reactors are made each year at the Davenport plant.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), which has 900 employees, regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials in the country and enforces the regulations set out in the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. Its tribunal is a quasi-judicial body that operates independently of commission staff.
At the hearings this week, many of the speakers expressed fear over the potential risk of uranium exposure despite assurances from a raft of scientific and technological experts from the CNSC.
The experts, who spoke in person and by video from Ottawa, where the commission is based, repeatedly said that radiation emissions from the plant were well below allowable limits and that there were no health and environmental risks.
The company monitors emissions from its stacks 24 hours a day, seven days a week and also analyzes the amount of uranium dioxide that is captured in five air filters around the perimeter of the plant.
That data is not available in real-time to outside organizations — another complaint at the hearings.
Speakers were also critical of the company’s outreach efforts, which are a condition of its licence.
In the hearings, tribunal members asked CNSC staff and BWXT to address community members’ concerns about the company’s transparency, as well as outreach by commission staff and the company.
Speaker after speaker told the tribunal they only found out about the plant years after they had already moved into the neighbourhood.
BWXT told the hearing that it delivers flyers to 4,000 people multiple times during the year, holds barbecues and regularly updates information on its website.
Julie Dzerowicz, the Liberal MP for Davenport, told the hearing that BWXT has continued to be a source of anxiety to her constituents, even though she has not personally heard any evidence from health officials that it’s a risk.
She said the lack of information breeds anxiety.
On day two of the hearings, Rumina Velshi, the president of the CNSC tribunal, agreed, saying: “I don’t think one of (the speakers) left this room convinced that they were safe … what’s tried before is not working.”
Marit Stiles, Davenport’s NDP MPP, told the tribunal she had knocked on doors over the weekend, finding that nearly everyone she talked to was unaware of the plant’s existence.
“We cannot ask residents to become their own environmental monitoring agency,” she said.
Both politicians said they’d like the plant to move.
But, Velshi said — as she did on day one — community buy-in is not a consideration for renewing the plant’s licence.
BWXT staff, including president John MacQuarrie, were also present and spoke of the facility’s safety measures, particularly around a 9,000-gallon liquid hydrogen tank that was the focus of several residents’ fears.
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Employee Dave Snopek told the commission the tank has several built-in safety features that would relieve pressure in the event of a fire.
In the extremely rare event of an explosion, said Doug Chambers, another employee, “you would expect some broken windows,” but it would not be a situation where buildings would fall down.
Steve Coupland of the Canadian Nuclear Association, the trade association for the industry, praised BWXT for improvements to safety systems at the plant, its environmental performance and for improvement to its public information program, newsletters and website.
Still, he said, most people don’t understand radiation exposure and it’s incredibly difficult to change people’s minds.
“Mr. Fernandes wouldn’t let his son play in the playground … The data shows there’s no risk. But he was genuinely concerned about his son,” Coupland said.
The only way to change people’s minds is through education and public outreach, he said.
The CNSC held the hearings in the Davenport riding because of the “unprecedented” level of interest that the application has generated.
They will hold similar hearings in Peterborough from Wednesday to Friday because BWXT has asked the commission to include a clause in its licence that would allow it to move the pelleting operation to Peterborough.
BWXT has a second plant in Peterborough where the pellets are assembled into fuel bundles for Darlington and Pickering reactors.
Peterborough activists are opposed to the move because the existing BWXT facility is across the street from an elementary school.
Nearly 250 people registered to speak, or sent in written submissions to the tribunal.
CNSC staff have recommended renewing the licence, which covers both the Toronto and Peterborough plants.
“The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) will never compromise safety and would never issue a licence for uranium processing operations unless the proposed activities were safe,” a commission spokesperson said in an email last week. “The licensing process includes a separate and thorough assessment by CNSC staff of BWXT’s application submission.”
“The assessment is based on the best available science and operational experience which informs a recommendation,” according to the email. “It is important to note that this recommendation is not in any way an authorization or “preliminary approval” of BWXT’s licence application. The Commission is an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal; it will review all the submissions and render an independent decision in due course.”