Remarks at the CNSC Public Meeting Concerning the GE Hitachi Fuel Manufacturing Facility in Toronto
Remarks by Dr. John Barrett, President and CEO, Canadian Nuclear Association
at the CNSC Public Meeting Concerning the GE Hitachi Fuel Manufacturing Facility in Toronto
December 10, 2013
Good afternoon, President Binder, Commission members and members of the public.
My name is John Barrett. I am the president of the Canadian Nuclear Association. Also with me today is Dr. Peter Poruks, manager of regulatory affairs at the Association. We are here to speak with you on behalf of the 60,000 Canadians who work directly or indirectly in the nuclear industry. These men and women mine and mill uranium, manufacture fuel, design reactors, generate electricity, and advance medicine through life saving diagnostics and therapies. It is a wide-ranging community, with many years of operational experience and expertise.
Our members maintain a deep commitment to the safety of their workplace and their communities, and to the protection of the environment. That is why we would like to offer our analysis of the safety concerns that are being addressed in this meeting.
In order to operate, the GE Hitachi fuel-manufacturing plant has faced a rigorous licensing process, as it should. It submitted substantial evidence as to the nature of its operations, the safety dimensions, and environmental impact with respect to emissions.
In short, with respect to procedure, the Commission’s decision to extend GE Hitachi’s operating license in 2010 was arrived at appropriately and through an open process.
This plant has been operating in this location, and respecting the terms of its public license, for more than 50 years. It has a long history of working safely and without incident.
The views of those who work at the plant, many of whom have spent much of their careers at the plant, should also be listened to. After all, they have their health and safety on the line as much as anyone.
A fuel factory that causes no harm to its workers and to its neighbours can easily blend into the background of buildings and infrastructure. We pass by it every day without giving it a second thought. We pass by hundreds of offices, warehouses and commercial operations every day without giving them a second thought.
While the public may not have paid much attention to GE Hitachi’s operation, the same cannot be said about the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. On the public’s behalf, the Commission provides strict oversight of this licensed nuclear facility. The company must have programs in place, staffed by qualified people, to ensure on-going safe operation. It must monitor its emissions in air and water, and report to you every year. It must limit these emissions to regulated levels that were established to protect the public and the environment.
GE Hitachi does all of these things.
Moreover, if GE Hitachi fails to meet these regulatory limits, it must file a report with the commission. Then it must submit to an investigation, and comply with the Commission’s remedial direction.
Just as we count on our fellow citizens to respect our rules and laws, so too has GE Hitachi respected the rules and laws governing the safe operations of its plant. It contributes to our society through employment. It sustains families through employment and has done so for generations.
GE Hitachi’s data offer proof that the company meets the public’s expectations for environmental protection. These data measure the company’s uranium emissions. Let’s look at these more closely.
There are three key numbers. The regulatory limit is a maximum that applies to all license-holders. The discharge limit applies specifically to GE Hitachi and is set out in the company’s licence. The actual measurement is based on samples of the material in question.
Emissions to the air. Systematic measurements reveal an average concentration around 0.008 micrograms of uranium per cubic meter. A microgram is one millionth of a gram. So 0.008 micrograms is eight billionths of a gram.
Over a full year of operation this facility releases between ten and sixteen grams of uranium. The company’s discharge limit is 760 grams per year. The regulatory limit is 15,200 grams per year. Therefore the plant emits just 0.1 per cent of the regulatory limit.
In other words, for every thousand units that the plant could emit, and stay within the terms of its license, it emits just one unit. One in a thousand. This licensee operates well within the limits established by the commission.
Next is the plant’s uranium emissions to water. Here the values are so low that it becomes difficult to convey their small nature. The water that reaches the sewer is used in tasks such as cleaning workers’ clothing, and washing floors and walls. In an average year, the plant will discharge about one kilogram of natural uranium. The regulatory limit is 180-thousand kilograms – considered a conservative and prudent limit that adequately protects the public and the environment. The limit is 180-thousand kilograms. The actual annual release is one kilogram. As a percentage of the limit, the actual discharge is just zero point zero zero zero five per cent of the limit.
Recently the commission and the Ontario environment ministry tested soil both at the plant and the adjacent properties. The results show uranium concentrations consistent with the level observed naturally in soil throughout Ontario. The measurements ranged from 0.3 to 2.9 micrograms of uranium per gram of soil. The natural level observed across Ontario is 2.5 micrograms per gram of soil.
The uranium levels measured at the plant and adjacent properties fall well within the guidelines published by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment for residential areas. That limit is 23 micrograms of uranium per gram of soil. That guideline is also nine times higher than the highest uranium level found in any of the samples taken by the federal and provincial authorities. In other words, the actual measurements at, and adjacent to, the GE Hitachi plant are a full order of magnitude below these recommendations.
What does the amount of 0.3 to 2.9 micrograms of uranium actually mean to the people living in the community? To receive the same amount of radiation, you could have one dental x-ray. Or you could stand outside the GE Hitachi facility 24 hours a day for ten full years or you could fly from Toronto to Vancouver. Either way you would receive the same dose of radiation.
I use these examples to bring forward an important point. Yes, there is radiation involved in this plant’s operation. But the quantities are so low that they do not represent a threat to public safety or the environment.
All of us are exposed to radiation, constantly. Even now, here in this room, we are receiving radiation. It comes from the sun, from the rocks in the ground, from our food. We had some radiation for breakfast this morning.
If we stepped outside for a walk, we would receive background radiation that exceeds GE Hitachi’s levels by a factor of 16-hundred.
There is another way to look at this. It is generally accepted in the field of nuclear medicine that exposure to radiation in the amount of 100 millisieverts could produce health effects. Below this amount, the evidence shows that we cannot see radiation effects on human health.
The limit for nuclear workers in Canada is 50 millisieverts in one year. For members of the public, that limit falls to one millisievert. The effect from operations at the GE Hitachi plant would be one one-thousandth of that limit. In other words, one would need 100-thousand times the exposure before health effects could theoretically begin to occur.
What do we draw from these facts and measurements? That emissions are fractions of a percent of regulatory limits.
Let me put the plant’s operations in a wider context. The fuel that leaves this plant powers nuclear reactors that generate electricity – in the case of Ontario, about 55 per cent of the province’s electrical supply.
The electricity from nuclear energy provides a clean, green, environmentally friendly way of meeting the power needs of our citizens. In contrast to fossil fuels, such as natural gas, nuclear power emits a very low level of climate-changing greenhouse gases. When you measure contributions to greenhouse gas production, nuclear stands comfortably beside wind turbines and solar panels as a source of green power.
Nuclear works tirelessly night and day. The sun sets. Winds grow calm. As power from these sources drains away, nuclear reactors run steadily around the clock. Much of the fuel that feeds those workhorses comes from the plant we are discussing today.
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this matter from the perspective of safety regulation and compliance.