Uranium in Toronto: the cleanest fuel runs the cleanest city

Toronto runs mostly on uranium and plutonium. Those two nuclear fuels provide the energy that runs Canadian nuclear reactors, which are what make most of the electricity that produces the city’s spectacular nighttime skyline, and makes its elevators, subways, and hospitals work.

Toronto at night, as seen from Lake Ontario. This spectacular scene would be impossible without electricity, most of which is made in nuclear plants located on the lake eastward (right) of Toronto as well as on the Bruce Penninsula on Lake Huron’s eastern shore.

Uranium and plutonium are extremely clean and efficient generator fuels. They are made entirely in Canada. Uranium is a naturally occurring mineral, found in abundance in Saskatchewan. When uranium is burned in a reactor, some uranium atoms are split, which releases heat (which powers the generator) and neutrons. Some of these neutrons then collide with other uranium atoms. This turns some of these other uranium atoms into plutonium. Plutonium also often splits when struck by a neutron; this also releases heat and further neutrons.

It all starts with uranium, of course. As mentioned, most Canadian uranium is dug out of the ground in Saskatchewan. It is then processed at other places, one of which is right in Toronto, at the GE-Hitachi facility at Lansdowne and Dupont. That facility makes uranium dioxide fuel pellets for CANDU fuel bundles. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, a federal government organization that oversees the nuclear industry in Canada, allows GE-Hitachi to manufacture 1,800 metric tons of pellets per year. GE-Hitachi has been doing this for years, a fact which did not stop several newspapers from presenting the facility’s existence as news. They are in the news business, after all.

CANDU fuel components and their relationship to the reactor. Fuel pellets, made at GE-Hitachi’s plant at Lansdowne and Dupont in Toronto, are inserted into half-meter-long fuel rods, which are arranged into bundles and fed horizontally into CANDU reactors.

One of the newspapers, the Toronto Star (Canada’s biggest newspaper) carried a more or less reasonable article dated Friday November 9 which mentions that the GE-Hitachi plant reported air emissions of “9.3 grams last year [2011] after hitting 16.6, a five-year high, in 2010. The federally regulated annual discharge limit is 760 grams.”

So, according to GE-Hitachi’s compliance report (see page 27 of the PDF), the emissions of uranium to the air from its Toronto facility were just over twelve one-thousandths, just over one percent, of the allowable discharge limit. (Divide 9.3 grams by 760.)

The amount of uranium discharged to the air from GE-Hitaci’s Toronto facility in 2011, 9.3 grams, works out to an average of 0.025 grams per day (divide 9.3 by 365 days). Is that a lot? Or is it a little? The answer: it is a little.

For some perspective, consider the cars that drive past the plant. According to Volkswagen, a typical gasoline-powered car emits about 2.3 grams of carbon monoxide (CO) per kilometer.

CO is an extremely valuable industrial chemical; as I have mentioned in other articles, CO is the cornerstone of the C1 economy. I run a number of R&D projects the aim of which is to make large amounts of CO—safely, of course.

But in the wrong circumstances, CO is a deadly poison. In fact, it is the most prolific toxic killer on the planet. Car tailpipes are an excellent example of CO in the wrong circumstances. A typical Toronto city block is 120 meters (0.12 kilometers) in length, so going by Volkswagen’s guideline a single gasoline-powered car will emit roughly 0.27 grams of carbon monoxide while driving past the GE-Hitachi facility at Lansdowne and Dupont.

How many cars drive past the GE-Hitachi facility at Lansdowne and Dupont facility each year? I have no idea. But Lansdowne and Dupont is a major intersection, and both streets are major traffic arteries. So let’s say 10,000 cars drive past every day. Ten thousand cars, each emitting 0.27 grams of CO, will collectively emit roughly 2,700 grams (or 2.7 kilograms). Cars driving past Lansdowne and Dupont emit just over 1 million grams per year, or one metric ton. And I must repeat: CO is a proven killer.

One million grams of CO is more than 100,000 times as much as the amount of uranium emitted from the GE-Hitachi’s uranium plant.

The 9.3 grams of uranium emitted into the air in 2011 from GE-Hitachi’s fuel pellet plant at Lansdowne and Dupont represent no threat at all. People in the immediate area ought to concern themselves with reducing the CO from the cars that whiz past at all hours of the day: there is much more of it, and it is a proven killer.

How could we reduce the CO from cars? An obvious way is to increase the reach of mass urban transit. In Toronto, mass transit is mostly streetcars and subways, which are electric powered and produce no air emissions at all, other than tiny amounts of metal particulates from the action of steel wheels on steel tracks. The electricity that powers streetcars and subways comes mostly from Ontario nuclear plants, which emit no carbon monoxide at all.

And Ontario nuclear plants run on the clean fuel that is made cleanly, right at Lansdowne and Dupont.

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Jeff Walther
11 years ago

I like your method of illustrating proportional risk by discussing CO emissions in the same geographical area.

Another method you might use, which might help folks to get over their knee-jerk fear of uranium is to point out how much of it is in sea salt. So those folks who salt their food with the newly fashionable “sea salt” are dousing their food with uranium.

Average consumption of salt per year, times percentage uranium in sea salt should give you a nice figure for how much uranium those people eat every year.

Let’s see, if uranium is 3 parts per billion in seawater, then it is about 85 parts per billion of the total solute. So for every kilogram of sea salt a person consumes, he or she gets .085 milligrams of uranium. Well poo. That’s not a very dramatic number at all. Better to leave off the numbers and just point out that one eats uranium when eating sea salt.

Jonny Swank
11 years ago

Not a great comparison. I’m not saying the exposure to uranium from this facility is necessarily a problem, and you are probably correct in arguing that overall CO has much more potential to be detrimental to health (in large quantities), but mitigation of problems related to CO exposure is much easier than uranium exposure. Exposed to low doses of CO? Get fresh air: CO-bound-hemoglobin has a half life of about 5h in fresh air (since O2 will convert the carboxyhemoglobin back to hemoglobin); the time is even less with O2 treatment in more severe exposure (~80minutes). The same cannot be said about uranium exposure. uranium is a teratogen and carcinogen. Even a small dose can be damaging depending on what absorbs the ionizing radiation (alpha decay). True, alpha decay from uranium isn’t particularly energetic and thus it is less damaging than other types of radiation, but it’s a numbers game. Get enough uranium, you increase the likelihood of cellular damage due to radiation. And uranium persists in the environment (half life of U238, which account for 99% of natural uranium, is 4.5 Billion years). Once it’s there, it’s pretty much there. It gets in our food and water (CO poses essentially no risk to health that way) if we haven’t inhaled the dust directly.

11 years ago

Firstly, I would like to make a point that I am no radiation expert, by any means, I am just letting you know what I know.

Although you make a good point that the emissions per day seem small, it is necessary to note that their is no scientifically supported evidence that states a safe intake of radiation. The BIER committee, which reviews their studies every few years or so, confirmed what they had already stated in multiple past studies; radiation has a “linear, no-threshold” risk model associated with radiation exposure, which means that the smallest dose of low-level ionizing radiation has the potential to cause a small increase in health risks to humans. Also, if you inhale a very small particle of uranium, the dose to the entire body is indeed very low, BUT the dose to the surrounding cells that are effected by the radiation is very high.

I know their emissions are small, but why have a plant that can cause potential risks be in a residential neighbourhood? GE is multi-billion dollar corporations, I think they can afford to move to ensure the safety of the community.

Also, don’t forget the potential for accidents that can expose the community to a lot more then 9.3 grams (which is also on the low end of their average annual emissions).