Envirotech and Environmentalism: Dr. Ursula Franklin and the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station (1971)
By Denisa Popa, University of Toronto
On Sunday January 12th, 2020, I was amongst the many people in Ontario who received an emergency alert from the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. Although I was relieved to hear that the alert was sent in error (and there was no actual emergency), this experience prompted me to reflect more deeply on the broader interaction between my environment and the Pickering Station.[i] I continued to reflect as I visited the University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services (UTARMS) to explore some of the archival material in the Ursula Franklin fonds. Not surprisingly, Dr. Ursula Franklin also considered this very topic when the Pickering station first opened.
Ursula Franklin, Professor of Materials Science, 1980, Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives
A celebrated physicist, feminist and pacifist, Ursula Franklin was the first women to become a University Professor at the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science at the University of Toronto (Franklin, 2018).[ii] Franklin received her training in chemistry and physics from the Technical University of Berlin and was awarded a PhD in Experimental/Applied Physics (Franklin, 2018). Her studies were interrupted during the Second World War when she was forced to spend 18 months at a labour camp (Franklin, 2018). She began her career at U of T soon after with a post-doctoral fellowship in 1949 (Franklin, 2018). Following her move to Toronto, she quickly established herself as a prominent scientist, working from 1951 to 1967 at the Ontario Research Foundation, and then obtaining a staff position at U of T (Franklin, 2018). Dr. Franklin passed away in 2016 at the age of 94 (Franklin, 2018).
During her career, Ursula Franklin was involved in numerous research projects that centred on assessing and understanding the interactions between technology and the environment. She was a member of the Voice of Women (VOW) activist group and campaigned with them on a national scale “against atmospheric nuclear testing” (Franklin, 2018: xii; Brookfield, 2012: 71– 5).[iii] Though her work and activism were at times situated in a national context, Franklin adamantly campaigned for local environmentalism. In 1971, she penned a passionate letter to the Toronto Star regarding the recently opened and nearby Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.[iv]
Ursula Franklin in a laboratory, ca. 1970s, Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives
Local Entanglements and Anti-Nuclear Environmentalism
Canada’s history of nuclear energy began in the mid 20th century. In 1968, the Douglas Point Nuclear Generating Station became the inaugural supplier of commercial nuclear power (Parr, 2010). Soon after, Ontario Hydro opened the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. Franklin’s environmental concerns were voiced within the context of the already existing movement against nuclear energy.[v]
Franklin’s letter to the Toronto Star detailed her concerns about environmental contamination and the safety issues she felt were not being adequately addressed at the Pickering Station. Her primary concern centred on the emission standards that were set by the station. These standards dictated how much radiation could safely be released into the environment. Franklin challenged these measurements by arguing that they assumed the surrounding environment dilutes the concertation of the radiation. The accumulation of radioactive pollution in the environment, she argued, was not considered in the setting of these emission standards. Moreover, Franklin stressed that radiation could be absorbed by living entities and the concentration of pollution could accumulate in plants, animals and other living organisms through food chains. Franklin further referenced the possibility of radioactive pollution presenting itself in the human food chain.
In the process of framing her argument, Franklin identified an entanglement among human bodies, radiation and the environment that was mediated by the nuclear generating station. Radiation was indirectly entering the human body through the pollution and contamination of non-human living entities in the environment. Indeed, Franklin skillfully presented the cyclicity and entangled nature of environmental contamination by dually framing it as a hazard to both humans and the environment.
Franklin’s fears over the contamination of human food sources tangibly materialized in the 1980s. In one book chapter, historian Laurel MacDowell identifies a study conducted in the late 1980s that discovered the presence of a carcinogen called tritium “in grass near the Pickering plants and in nearby fruits and vegetables”. (MacDowell, 2016: 346)
Nuclear energy continues to play a prominent role in Canada’s environment. Reflecting on Ursula Franklin’s environmentalism and activism provides one avenue towards gaining a deeper understanding of past conceptualizations of nuclear energy and its entangled environmental impact.
[i] For more information see the Globe and Mail article “Investigation into mistaken alert about Pickering nuclear power station won’t be long and drawn out, minister says” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-investigation-into-mistaken-alert-about-pickering-nuclear-power/
[ii] Franklin was a pacifist and adamantly applied ideas of non-violence and anti-militarism in her research as she “refused to take part in research that could be used by the military or had military applications” (Franklin, 2018: xii).
[iii] As a member of VOW, Franklin led a national study on “Fallout Monitoring in Canada”, which she presented to the Canadian Minister of National Health and Welfare in 1962. Conducted at the height of the Cold War, this study highlighted the environmental concerns associated with increasing radioactive contamination from nuclear testing and the failure of the Canadian government in adequately addressing these concerns. (Franklin, 2018; Fallout Monitoring in Canada: Brief to the Minister of National Health and Welfare/ VOW Canada 1963, University of Toronto Archives. Ursula Franklin fonds. B1996- 0004/042(02)).
[iv] A handwritten note at the end of this letter claimed that it had been “Submitted to the TORONTO STAR in April ‘71” but not published. Franklin’s letter can be found at the University of Toronto archives (Letter re: Toronto Star article re: Pickering Power Plant, University of Toronto Archives. Ursula Franklin fonds. B2015-0005/056(06).
[v] For more on this movement see Laurel MacDowell’s book chapter “Nuclear Power” (2016) in R. Sandwell, Powering Up Canada: a History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600 (pp. 329-352). Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Brookfield, T. (2012). Cold War Comforts: Canadian Women, Child Safety, and Global Insecurity, 1945-1975. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Fallout Monitoring in Canada: Brief to the Minister of National Health and Welfare/ VOW Canada 1963, University of Toronto Archives. Ursula Franklin fonds. B1996- 0004/042(02)
Franklin, M. (2018). Ursula Franklin: Her daughter’s appreciation. Canadian Journal of Physics, 96(4), xi-xiii.
Jones, A. (2020, January 13). Investigation into mistaken alert about Pickering nuclear power station won’t be long and drawn out, minister says. Retrieved from The Globe and Mail : https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-investigation-into-mistaken-alert-about-pickering-nuclear-power/
Letter re: Toronto Star article re: Pickering Power Plant, University of Toronto Archives. Ursula Franklin fonds. B2015-0005/056(06)
MacDowell, L. (2016). Nuclear Power. In R. Sandwell, Powering Up Canada: a History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600 (pp. 329-352). Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Parr, J. (2010). Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Ursula Franklin fonds. (n.d.). Retrieved from University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services: https://utarms.library.utoronto.ca/archives/featured-collections/ursula-franklin-fonds
UTARMS. (2020). Retrieved from University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services: https://utarms.library.utoronto.ca