What you need to know about the Pickering nuclear reactors

Page - April 17, 2018

Why should Pickering be shut down?

Pickering is the oldest nuclear station in Canada. Pickering is particularly dangerous because of its aging and out-of-date design. The station’s location near the highly-populated city of Toronto would mean that the impacts of a major accident could be much worse than those seen at Chernobyl or Fukushima.

More importantly, we simply don’t need Pickering. The majority of Pickering’s output is surplus and exported to the United States. This means Ontario communities aren't even benefitting from the power. Pickering is all risk no reward. Since we don't depend on it for power, this unnecessary reactor can be easily shut down.

What’s being proposed at Pickering?

Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the station’s operator, is asking the Ontario government to run the Pickering nuclear station beyond its original design life until 2024.

Pickering should have closed in 2014, but in 2013 it was given approval to run until 2020. OPG is now asking to run the aging reactors even further beyond their design life.

Should we be concerned about running reactors beyond their design lives?

Yes.  As reactors age, components and safety systems degrade, increasing the potential for accidents.

The six Pickering reactors are oldest in Canada. The four Pickering “A” reactors are the oldest commercial reactors in the country, and began commercial operation between 1971 and 1973. The four Pickering “B” reactors were added on between 1983 and 1985.  

In addition to component failure, reactor accidents can also be caused hostile action by terrorists, external events like erratic weather or ineffective regulatory oversight.

Does OPG believe a Fukushima-scale accident can happen at Pickering?

Yes. OPG believes nuclear accidents like the Fukushima accident are possible here in Canada. But instead of investing in safer sources of energy, OPG is has lobbied the government for a special law to shield itself from responsibility from any such accidents.

That’s why OPG has asked for the special legislation – called the Nuclear Liability and Compensation Act  – which protects them from compensating victims in the event of an accident.  This means Canadians harmed by an accident at Pickering will end up paying for any losses themselves, either directly or through their tax-dollars.

Does Pickering’s design meet modern international nuclear safety standards?

No. Due to their "positive reactivity," both the CANDU reactors at Pickering and Chernobyl reactors are prone to experience a rapid increase in reactor power when voids form in the coolant that is used to remove heat from the reactor core. This increase in reactor power makes it difficult to control the reactor, thereby increasing the chance of an explosion and the release of radioactivity.

Most international safety regulators shun reactor designs with positive reactivity but Canada's nuclear safety regulator has continued to allow positive reactivity because all Canadian reactors in operation have it.

The six operating Pickering reactors also share many safety systems (such as containment) because OPG wanted to save money. This means that in the event of an accident at more than one reactor, Pickering has a limited ability to contain radiation releases. Such sharing of safety systems would not be allowed if International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety guidelines were applied to Pickering.

Was Pickering designed to withstand a terrorist attack?

No. The Pickering nuclear station is a pre-September 11th design and is not designed to resist a terrorist attack. New reactor designs are required to be more robust to withstand certain terrorist attacks, but OPG is not willing to spend the money to upgrade Pickering and better protect public safety.

How can OPG be allowed to operate reactors so close to Toronto?

There are no federal or provincial rules to prevent locating of reactors near large populations.

So while the Ontario government won’t allow a wind turbine within 500 metres of someone’s house, there are no equivalent rules to prevent reactors from operating in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Worse, Kathleen Wynne’s government has a policy encouraging population growth around the Pickering nuclear station. This is contrary to international safety guidelines, which advise against population intensification near nuclear reactors.

What’s wrong with operating reactors in a populated area?

In the event of an accident like Fukushima, it makes safely evacuating people logistically challenging — if not impossible.

Over a million people live within 20 km of Pickering. By comparison, 150,000 people were evacuated in a 20 km area around Fukushima.

But Pickering is safe because there haven’t been any major accidents, right?

No. Over Pickering’s history there have been many near-miss accidents.

For example, in 1983 a pressure tube burst at one of the Pickering A reactors. This is referred to as a Loss of Coolant Accident (LOCA). Although this didn’t lead to a radiation release, the accident was so significant that Ontario Hydro (OPG’s predecessor) spent the next ten years rebuilding the four Pickering A reactors to address a design flaw revealed by the accident.

On August 13, 2003, during the great blackout that hit much of North America, the Pickering nuclear station was disconnected from grid.  Because Pickering’s Emergency Core Cooling System had been unwisely designed to depend on grid-supplied electricity, it meant that the station’s ability to provide cooling if an accident had occurred was unavailable for five and half hours.  

This near-miss accident was rated a level 2 accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) scale.  Several other INES level accidents at Pickering during its operation.

Can we trust Canada’s nuclear safety regulator?

No. The independence of the of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) was compromised in 2008 when Stephen Harper’s government fired the Commission’s president, Linda Keen. 

Keen says she was fired because SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec engineering that bought the rights to sell and repair CANDU reactors from the Harper government,  was upset because she was imposing modern safety standards on the Canadian nuclear industry. This hurt SNC-Lavalin’s profits.

The decision by the Harper government to fire Keen and side with SNC-Lavalin sent a strong signal to the nuclear industry and our federal regulator: nuclear safety can be ignored or dismissed. Unlike its attempts to reduce the oil industry’s influence over the National Energy Board (NEB), the Trudeau government has made no attempt to re-establish the independence of the CNSC despite requests from environmental organizations.

Does Pickering harm Lake Ontario?

Yes. The Pickering nuclear station kills millions of fish annually and harms aquatic ecosystems because it uses (and pollutes) water from Lake Ontario to cool the station’s four reactors.

In 2010, OPG was instructed to reduce the number of fish it kills by 80%, but it hasn’t been able to do this consistently. In 2017, Pickering killed over 25,000 kilograms of fish. This is twenty five times more than in 2016.  

But don’t we need the electricity produced by Pickering?

No. The majority of the power produced by Pickering is surplus and is exported to the United States.

In 2010, OPG first proposed to operate Pickering beyond its design life because it claimed the power would be needed to new replacement reactors came online in 2020.

However, the need for electricity demand was overestimated and the majority of Pickering’s generation has been surplus. Due to falling electricity demand, the Wynne government abandoned plants to build new reactors in 2013 but allowed Pickering to continue operating.

But why does OPG want to keep operating Pickering if we don’t need the power?

OPG makes money from selling Pickering’s power to the provincial electricity system operator.

However, because most of PIckering’s output is surplus, Ontario’s electricity system operator must sell its electricity to neighbouring American states at prices significantly lower than it paid OPG. These losses are paid by Ontarians on their electricity bill.   

In short, OPG profits while Ontarians shoulder the costs and risks of operating Pickering.

Does OPG need any approvals to continue operating?

The Wynne government has said it will only give OPG final approval to continue operating Pickering after it gets appropriate regulatory approvals from the federal nuclear safety regulator.  The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) will hold hearings in June 2018 on whether to approve OPG’s licence application.

If the CNSC approves OPG’s licence, whatever government is elected in the June 7th provincial election will decide whether to accept or reject OPG’s request to operate Pickering until 2024.

Are there plans to transition workers when Pickering closes?

There are approximately three thousand people who work at Pickering. Unfortunately, OPG has not published any plans on how it will transition these workers to other forms of employment. This is irresponsible.

What should be done?

Most importantly, the provincial government elected on June 7th should reject OPG’s request to continue operating Pickering beyond its design life.

Second, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) should acknowledge that the risk of continuing to operate the Pickering nuclear station in the Greater Toronto Area is no longer acceptable and instruct OPG to close the Pickering.

The Ontario government and OPG should ensure there are proper plans in place to support workers who may be impacted by Pickering’s closure.

What can I do?

Greenpeace’s Toronto volunteer group is campaigning to shut down Pickering.  If you’d like to speak, please let them know here: act.gp/pickering