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Enriched Hypocrisy

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April 23, 2010

Enriched Hypocrisy

Before criticizing Iran's nuke program, Canada should look within

by Matthew Davidson

Trees blossom in a residential neighborhood where uranium is being enriched in the Peterborough, Ontario, GE-Hitachi plant. At the G8 meetings in June, Canada intends to push for sanctions against Iran for its nuclear enrichment program. Photo: Matthew Davidson

PETERBOROUGH—Eight of the world’s most powerful leaders are meeting in Huntsville, Ontario, this June to discuss Iran’s nuclear power industry. Concerned over Tehran’s enrichment of uranium, Prime Minister Stephen Harper intends to use Canada’s leadership of the Group of Eight (G8) to push for sanctions against the Middle Eastern country. Anti-nuclear activists, citing the prominence and recent growth of Canada's own nuclear industry, are pointing out contradictions between domestic policy and Harper's intentions at the G8.

Reacting to Tehran’s February 9 announcement that Iran had successfully enriched uranium at its Natanz nuclear facility south of Tehran, Harper announced in a February press release his intentions to push the G8 to adopt harsher policies against Iran. “Canada will continue to work with our allies to find strong and viable solutions, including sanctions, to hold Iran to account.”

Harper said he aimed to reach an agreement amongst the G8 countries prior to the G20 meetings, as “the sting of a co-ordinated approach is always felt more strongly.”

Canada hopes China, also a nuclear supplier and one of Iran’s leading trading partners, won’t want to risk isolation from the other major industrialized economies and will therefore be pressured into supporting sanctions. (A similar strong-arm tactic was used against Russia in 1997 to gain support for the G7-led invasion of Serbia.)

Two days after Tehran's February 9 announcement, General Electric (GE) was awarded permission to enrich uranium in Peterborough, Ontario—an activity in which the provincial government had invested $15 million last November.

Peterborough’s GE plant, located in the heart of the city, already produces nuclear materials in partnership with the Japanese company Hitachi. GE-Hitachi submitted an environmental assessment proposal in 2007 to produce "low enriched uranium fuel bundles." This would require an upgrade of the plant’s status to “nuclear installation,” in turn requiring higher insurance costs.

Residents are concerned. The facility is immediately adjacent to residential areas and the Prince of Wales Elementary School, where 120 parents showed up to the only public meeting on the issue. Notice was given to parents just two days before the meeting, while residents were not informed at all.

The Environmental Assessment Report (EAR) submitted by GE stated the facility is located among “the most vulnerable catchments in the city for floods.” (The facility had in fact flooded during a city-wide flood in 2002.) The EAR also noted that in two years out of ten, water contamination from radiation reached a level 20 per cent above Health Canada’s 2006 safety levels. At the January hearing on the EAR, it was also noted that radiation contamination levels in the air at the plant had been steadily increasing over the past few years.

Two children play in the schoolyard at Prince of Wales Elementary. The building housing GE-Hitachi’s Peterborough nuclear facility can be seen through the trees. Photo: Matthew Davidson

None of the parents, nor any other residents interviewed for this article, had been aware of this. All expressed the assumption that governmental regulations would keep them safe.

At the public hearing on GE's submission (which was scheduled for the afternoon of a weekday in Ottawa), the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC—the federal nuclear regulating agency) ruled in favour of GE-Hitachi’s proposal, in spite of a number of written submissions from Peterborough residents to the CNSC, opposing the the proposal.

According to The Arthur, Trent University’s student newspaper, Canadian government approval of a nuclear plant is a “slap in the face” to the residents of the City of Peterborough, given the success of a recent mass mobilization against uranium mining. In 2008, local organizing succeeded in having the city council pass a motion calling for a moratorium on the mining of uranium in Sharbot Lake, 150km to the east. The Arthur wrote that some Peterborough residents felt the Sharbot Lake ruling should have been an indictment of the entire nuclear industry.

According to Roy Brady, an activist with anti-nuclear group Safe and Green Energy (SAGE), if Canada is serious about nuclear non-proliferation, all aspects of the uranium cycle must be examined, including our own domestic uses.

This was not the case for GE, Brady said in an interview, given the proposed plant’s environmental assessment states that GE lacks a decommissioning plan.

In his recent book, Atomic Accomplice, Paul McKay, founding editor of the now-defunct (and Peterborough-published) Nuclear Free Press, said Canadian-built CANDU reactors were designed as part of the infamous Manhattan Project in the development of the nuclear bomb. The CANDU reactors produce more plutonium, the main reactive material in the nuclear bomb, than any other reactor type. The uranium bundles to be produced in Peterborough are destined for such CANDU reactors.

Craig Severence, who recently authored Business Risks and Costs of Nuclear Power, in lambasting the economics of the nuclear industry, pointed out the only “legitimate” reason to enrich uranium is for use in a nuclear power plant.

“The continued promotion and sale worldwide of civilian nuclear reactors gives nations the excuse to operate uranium enrichment programs,” Severence wrote in his report, pointing to Iran as an example.

According to McKay, Iran's nuclear ambitions can even be linked to Canada's export of nuclear technology to India, one of Iran's regional rivals. Canada provided India with nuclear material despite knowledge that the country was attempting to build an atomic bomb—which India certainly did, conducting the first successful test in 1974.

Critics of Canadian foreign policy point out that despite commonly-held beliefs, Canada's non-proliferation record is questionable. Yves Engler noted one example of this in his book, Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, stating that Canadian military jets stationed in Europe were armed with nuclear warheads during the Cold War—even after all American nuclear silos were removed from the country. As McKay said, “Canada’s nuclear record is far from innocent.”

Leading up to the G8 summit in Huntsville this summer, Canadians might wonder if the G8 would be worrying about nuclear non-proliferation issues now had countries like Canada kept a distance from nuclear trade with the Middle East in the first place.

The hope among nuclear critics is for G8 and G20 countries that have strong nuclear industries to realize how closely their nuclear programs play into Iran's.

Matthew Davidson is a student of history and international development at Trent University. He is actively engaged with both anti-nuclear and G8 resistance organizing in Peterborough.

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looking for Matthew Davidson's Email

Hi there. I read the article - Enriched Hypocrisy, by Matthew Davidson. There is a section that talks about water contamination from radiation around GE. My daughter's day care is located across the road from GE, needless to say, the article concerned me. I would very much like to ask Matthew about his source of information regarding this. The Peterborough Health Unit had this article on file & are saying much of the info is not accurate. I would just like to get to the truth of the matter, to determine if my family is safe.
If you could please pass this on to him, or forward his email address to me, I would very much appreciate it.
Nicole Hurley


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