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Residents shocked by uranium facility that has been hiding in plain sight

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For almost half a century, residents of a west-end community in Toronto have lived side-by-side with a uranium processing facility, without ever noticing it. But the years of blissful ignorance have seemingly come to an end and this 'new' knowledge of the plant has left many in the community afraid and pushing for change.

In a nondescript, four-floor building on Lansdowne Avenue, just north of Dupont Street, a G.E. Hitachi Canada facility has been turning uranium – found in small amounts in rocks, soil, water and plants – into pellets, to be used in the production of nuclear fuel, for decades. (Uranium, in its natural form, emits low levels of radiation.)

Information on the plant's activities, its safety records and up-to-date compliance reports can all be found on the company's website. Yet most residents had not only had no idea about this information, they didn't even know it was a uranium plant.

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But as word leaked out, the community held four meetings in the last month to raise awareness, soothe fears and figure out what's next for the neighbourhood. More than 100 people showed up to the latest meeting on Saturday held by local Member of Parliament Andrew Cash, who said the residents "need to get answers."

Reg McQuaid was at Mr. Cash's meeting. He has lived with his wife in the Davenport area for over 30 years, at one point living just down the road from the facility. He admitted that he once saw a radiation symbol on the building, but never paid it much attention.

"I was surprised because I had no idea there was anything of that nature there but since it looked like a very ordinary building and I could see no sign of anything I associate with nuclear energy, I didn't pay much attention," Mr. McQuaid said.

Ignorant no more, residents are demanding the facility be closed or moved, even though the facility has no history of safety issues and still meets the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. It has also received G.E.'s internal Global Star Award twice in the last decade for excellent health and safety performance.

None of that matters to Debbie Medeiros. She has lived a block away from the uranium plant for the last seven years without knowing it existed and now she wants it gone.

Despite the fact the facility has been operating safely unbeknownst to residents, she believes the risk of exposure to radiation is too much.

"It should be further away… they need to relocate," Ms. Medeiros said.

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At the meeting, G.E.'s vice-president of communications Kim Warburton recognized the area has become more residential, particularly after a new condo building opened across from the facility in 2011.

"We admit that we can do better in terms of communicating with the community," she said, while also trying to reassure residents of the facility's safety. She added that several of the facility's 53 employees live in the area.

"We're very proud of our record of safety after 50 years in the area, we're also very proud of our workers in the area," Ms. Warburton said. "We monitor and test emissions very closely and that includes air, water, soil."

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