There are two questions about BWXT Nuclear Energy Canada’s operations that nobody seems able to answer. The first being, are they insured? According to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), “BWXT maintains industrial insurance and this information is considered proprietary.”
The second question asks what could go wrong? In an Op-ed in the Peterborough Examiner, BWXT CEO John MacQuarrie writes, “We have considered all accident scenarios, including the very low probability but potentially serious events, and in all cases the risk to the public and the environment is negligible.”
BWXT has applied to the CNSC for a ten-year operating licence renewal with “flexibility” to move all their uranium pellet manufacturing from Toronto to BWXT’s Peterborough factory. Said factory is located on Monaghan Road, right across from the Prince of Wales Public School. The BWXT facility in Toronto produces half of all nuclear fuel used in Canada’s reactors. They cook uranium dioxide powder into pellets at 1650 degrees centigrade. The factory produces over 150 tonnes of uranium pellets per month, and is allowed to store as much as 700 tonnes of uranium on site at any time in any form.
At present, the BWXT plant in Peterborough receives the uranium pellets from the Toronto factory and inserts them into zirconium fuel rods. These then go on to power the Pickering and Darlington nuclear reactors on Lake Ontario.Uranium is a toxic heavy metal that emits short-wave alpha radiation.
CNSC documents revealed that “in January 2017, BWXT reported a minor fire in the Toronto facility. The minor hydrogen jet fire was immediately controlled and extinguished.”
According to BWXT’s own Safety Analysis Report, “for all hazard scenarios, existing safeguards resulted in Low and Intermediate Risk,… except for extremely unlikely incidents involving the hydrogen storage tank, which are of Medium risk.”
BWXT’s hydrogen storage tank holds 9000 gallons of liquid hydrogen. Hydrogen is highly explosive; the explosion of a similar hydrogen tank in Germany resulted in severe damage within a radius of one kilometre.
Radiation biologist Dr. Ian Fairlie warns that in a worst case scenario, “large amounts of radioactive dust could be spread over densely populated areas that could necessitate the evacuation of those areas for lengthy periods of time.” He adds that although “the likelihood of such scenarios is small, the consequences could be large.”
BWXT is a Lynchburg, Virginia-based company which purchased the business from GE-Hitachi in 2016. In addition to working with highly-enriched uranium, BWXT is also an active nuclear weapons manufacturer in the United States.
In 2012, the plant’s former owners provided the public with a plan it had in place in the event of emergencies for the Toronto pelleting facility. Entire pages of the document were blacked out while others were removed altogether. The documents stated that:
- “A Site Emergency is the most serious emergency condition because it represents a loss of control with consequences beyond the facility boundaries, i.e., to the environment or members of the public.”
- “The default evacuation distance from a radiological release as specified in emergency responder handbooks is 300 m.”
- “Fire fighting personnel may approach a suspected hydrogen fire by holding a broom or other combustible item in front of them when approaching.”
Peterborough group Citizens Against Radioactive Neighbourhoods (CARN) has built a groundswell of grassroots opposition to BWXT’s re-licensing. 250 people showed up to a December 3 meeting about health concerns, while another 150 showed up to a January 7 intervention writing workshop. There they learned how to participate in the upcoming licence renewal hearings, and they have since had weekly protests in hazmats suits which have garnered a lot of local media attention.
On Sunday, January 18, dozens showed up in snowy conditions to protest BWXT at Peterborough City Hall. The protestors carried signs that warned “Danger: Corporate profit over public safety” and asked “Diane, will you protect PTBO?”
Will Mayor Diane Therrien protect Peterborough? It’s a good question Arthur would like to ask but unfortunately Therrien has not responded to repeated requests for comment. Therrien has stated the following: “My understanding is that the BWXT facility is continuously monitored and is up to the highest safety standards.”
BWXT is monitored by the CNSC which is known for being the “poster child of an industry-captured regulator,” much like the National Energy Board (NEB) which is known to be made up of petroleum industry insiders.
Because the federal government is approving a massive expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure at the time of a global climate crisis, it is reasonable to argue that the federal government and its regulatory agencies lack the credibility required to make decisions, especially when it comes to protecting public safety and the environment.
The CNSC wants your trust, as their motto is that they will “Never Compromise Safety,” but in 2013 the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada commissioned a survey by Environics Research Group on the muzzling of federal scientists, which painted an alarming picture. The “Big Chill” survey of CNSC employees found that:
- 57 percent of CNSC employees said they were aware of cases where public health and safety has been compromised due to political interference.
- 95 percent of CNSC employees reported interference in their reports and conference presentations.
- And 93 percent of CNSC employees were in favour of strengthened federal whistleblower protection.
According to BWXT’s CNSC approved Compliance Monitoring Reports, the Toronto facility has released 46.2 grams of uranium into the air, and 3.62 kilograms of uranium into the sewer system over the past five years. While BWXT reps contend those numbers are “miniscule,” Dr. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility thinks otherwise. At the public health meeting on December 3, 2019, which was organized by CARN and held at Prince of Wales Public School, Dr. Edwards revealed that each gram of uranium that escapes BWXT’s filters in Toronto is made up of approximately 7.8 trillion particles.
Dr. Cathy Vakil of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, warned that “if you inhale a particle of uranium, the cells right close by are damaged. And if the DNA is damaged, you are at risk for cancer.”
While the CNSC insists that the public has nothing to be worried about, in an email to Arthur they write “while it is physically impossible for one person to breathe all the uranium released from the facilities, the public dose is based on a critical receptor (person) being exposed to all the releases from the facility. This public dose value for these facilities is a fraction (1/100th) of the public dose.”
The current release limits imposed on the Toronto facility allow for 9000 kilograms into the water and 760 grams of uranium into the air every year. Although the company claims to release only a fraction of this amount, BWXT spokesperson Natalie Cutler wrote in an email that “the CNSC sets release limits such that there are no consequences to the public or the environment.”
Can the people of Peterborough trust a corporation and regulator that believes releasing over 9000 kilograms of uranium per year into the local environment would have no consequences to the public or the environment?
On Sunday, January 12, Ontarians woke up to an alert on their cellphones warning of an incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station on Lake Ontario. The alarm turned out to be false, but nonetheless over 40,000 people living within 50 kilometres of the plant have subsequently ordered free iodine pills. The pills are taken in the event of a nuclear calamity, as they block radioactivity from being absorbed into the thyroid gland.
The Pickering reactors were designed in 1971 for a 30-year lifespan. The Ontario government now wants to push them beyond 2024, at which point they’ll be more than 54 years old.
A meltdown at either Darlington or Pickering nuclear reactors could make Lake Ontario water undrinkable, and depending on wind direction it could make Peterborough severely contaminated and even uninhabitable for generations.
The people of Peterborough need to decide if they can trust the government to keep them safe from nuclear accidents and radiation exposure. Is it worth the risks?
Hearings to review BWXT’s 10-year licence application will take place on March 5 and 6 at the Holiday Inn, Peterborough Waterfront at 150 George Street North. The deadline for members of the public to sign up to make submissions in writing or in person is January 27 by e-mailing email@example.com.