Nuclear cloud exploding from BWX Technologies facility
ILLUSTRATION BY  Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

A facility that produces half the country’s nuclear fuel pellets sits beside a busy rail line in densely populated Wallace Emerson. It’s applying to have its licence renewed for another 10 years – so far, without any pushback

At 1025 Lansdowne Ave., just north of Dupont, sits a pale-brick factory that processes 53 per cent of all uranium used in Canada’s nuclear reactors. It’s been doing so since 1965, although that history is not widely known.

That changed in 2012, when a group of activists drew attention to what was being manufactured there. At the time, there were no signs indicating it was a nuclear facility; many assumed, because it was operated by General Electric, that it was producing air conditioners.

That group’s work led to public hearings and an investigation by Toronto Public Health, which ultimately gave the facility a pass, declaring that the level of radiation emitted by the building was not a risk to the community. Concerns flared up again in 2016, when GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy sold the facility to BWX Technologies, a Virginia firm that provides uranium dioxide pellets to nuclear power plants, including Pickering and Darlington – and to the U.S. Navy for use in nuclear missiles.

If that isn’t enough to keep you up at night, the facility at 1025 Lansdowne is located 50 feet (15 metres) from the busy rail corridor that runs roughly parallel to Dupont Street in its entirety. It’s the same rail corridor where, three kilometres east, near Bathurst, 1,100 litres of diesel fuel spilled during a derailment in August 2016. That incident wasn’t caused by a mechanical glitch, but by human error. “After careful review, we determined that all track, equipment and signal systems worked as designed, and our preliminary investigation indicates human error is to blame,” said CP Rail in a statement at the time. It added, “We know one incident is too many.” It was a good thing the accident hadn’t happened three kilometres to the west.

The BWXT facility on Lansdowne is now up for a 10-year operating-licence renewal from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. It filed in November. Its current licence expires on Dec. 31, 2020. It’s no longer any secret what’s going on there: The sign out front clearly reads “BWXTNuclear Energy Canada.” Visible from the fence along the eastern border of the lot, from St. Clarens Avenue, is a door bearing the symbol for radiation hazard. Another sign on the property invites locals to join BWXT’s community liaison committee, which was formed after the company changed hands, and in response to the 2012 concerns; the deadline to apply was in December. Davenport MP Julie Dzerowicz says she was impressed by the committee’s makeup: “When I saw the names, it was a good group of people, people who are active in the community and would absolutely be ringing bells if need be.”

Uranium is naturally radioactive, though not dangerously so unless ingested or inhaled, especially in large doses. BWXT is legally allowed to release 9,000 kg of uranium dioxide into Toronto sewers per year; in 2017, the company’s in-house monitoring said they released 0.94 kg. They’re allowed to release 760 grams into the air; they said only 7.4 grams were released.

Regulation of the site is under federal jurisdiction. Dzerowicz says that since she was elected in 2015, only one resident has raised concerns about emissions from the site, and that she was satisfied with the multiple test results from the Toronto Board of Health and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. “If proof was brought to me of soil and air samples indicating contamination, I’d be absolutely willing to take immediate action and work with local authorities and officials,” she says.

Assuming safety inside the building does pass muster – and that assumption relies on your faith in the nuclear industry in general – there is still the issue of proximity to a major rail path. Dzerowicz says no one has raised any concerns with her office about potential derailment. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities became acutely interested in the issue of rail safety after the Lac Mégantic disaster in 2013, when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, levelling the town and killing 47 people. The federal government enacted several new safety measures that addressed some of the federation’s concerns – including notifying municipalities about which dangerous goods are being transported through their communities.

In the case of Lac Mégantic, it was the cargo that caused exponentially more damage than an everyday derailment. But what would happen if the structure of 1025 Lansdowne were compromised by a crash? Even if the uranium processing at BWXT is safe, the process still involves the use of fluorine (which one chemist dubbed “the element from hell”), hydrofluoric acid (incredibly toxic) and hydrogen gas (highly flammable). Bad combo.

The Railway Association of Canada’s web page boasts that this country’s railways are among the safest in North America – but that’s a comparison to only two other countries. It goes on to say, “Our freight railways have reduced their accident rate by more than 37 per cent in the past decade.”

That may be true, but the first half of that decade must have been pretty lucky. According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, there were an average of 75 main-track derailments a year between 2013 and ’17. In 2017 there were 78; in 2018 there were 88. That isn’t a reduction. Approximately 40 trains a day run through the Dupont rail corridor, at speeds of more than 80 km/h. The FCM’s national guidelines recommend a 30-metre gap between a rail path and residences. It’s half that at 1025 Lansdowne. In 2017, one developer’s proposal for a combined office and residential tower at 328 Dupont had to be reconfigured to set it back at least 20 metres from the rail path, as a result of a precedent-setting decision by the Ontario Municipal Board. One rail expert at the time told the OMB that a derailment along Dupont “can occur for a number of reasons, in any direction, at any time,” according to the Toronto Star.

According to a representative from BWXT, “The rail line that runs adjacent to our facility is designated as a lowspeed zone by law, and it has been determined that in the unlikely event of a train derailment, there is an exceptionally low risk of damage to our facility.”

Isabelle Roy, senior communications adviser for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, says that “proximity to potential external hazards like the adjacent railroad is one of the many considerations in the licensing of the BWXT nuclear facility,” adding that the company is “mandated” by regulatory requirement to design and operate the facility with several layers of mitigation measures to ensure safety of the environment and the public ... The emergency response measures include a response from the Toronto Fire Service and its hazmat team and have been extensively tested specifically for this facility and independently reviewed to ensure adequate, timely response for any scenario potentially envisaged.”

BWXT’s licence renewal will be evaluated at a public commission meeting in Ottawa sometime this year. Meanwhile, across the street from the plant at the corner of Lansdowne and Brandon, there is a public notice announcing the construction of the final stages of the Davenport Village project: three apartment buildings (24 to 32 storeys) and four blocks of four-storey townhouses, a total of 1,085 residences. BWXT’s community liaison committee might need a few more chairs at its next meeting.