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February 5, 2018

How safe Ontario nuclear power facilities?

Scott Stockdale

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Ontario has three nuclear power facilities operating 18 reactors, which makes it one of the largest nuclear jurisdictions in the world.

After listening to a panel of experts on a recent edition of TV Ontario's Agenda, one can only wonder how prepared our government is for a nuclear disaster such as the one that occurred at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma, Japan on March 11, 2011.

After the Tohoku earthquake, an ensuing tsunami disabled the emergency generators at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant that would have provided power to control and operate the pumps necessary to cool the reactors. The insufficient cooling led to three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, and the release of radioactive material in Units 1, 2 and 3 from March 12 to March 15. Loss of cooling also caused the pool for storing spent fuel from Reactor 4 to overheat on March 13, due to the decay heat from the fuel rods.

Meanwhile, Shawn - Patrick Stensil, an energy analyst at Green Peace told the TV Ontario panel that we have eighteen nuclear power plants on the Great Lakes, as well as seven more in the United States, for a total of 25 nuclear reactors, which could affect Canadians in the event of an accident. But Mr. Stensil said there is a complacent mindset in the Ontario Provincial government about this issue.

“We don't think it's a problem. This is something that happens far away. The risk of an accident isn't high. After Fukushima, the provincial government sent a letter to the federal government saying to make sure everything is okay; but the province is responsible for off-site emergency preparedness. The federal government is responsible for on-site safety, but the province has clear jurisdiction off-site safety.”

Subsequently, Stephanie Smith Director of Operations and Maintenance at Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, said her staff at Ontario Power Generation (OPG) Pickering has looked at Fukushima and she sought to reassure the listening audience that OPG staff is prepared for such an accident.

“What OPG has done is we've taken a look and put safeguards in place. We've spent a lot of money to have backup generators and other ways to add coolant to the reactor; and we've actually led the industry in North America on improving our plans to respond to something similar to what happened at Fukushima.”

Panel member Theresa McClenaghan, executive director at the Canadian Environmental Law Association said while the extra backup power installed is welcome, that doesn't necessarily mean we are prepared for severe accidents.

“I've looked at the emergency plans of all of Canada's nuclear plants and my view is we're not adequately protected.”

Dave Novog, Director of McMaster University's Institute of Energy Studies, said that in his view the province has taken excellent steps to prepare for an emergency and he believes we're adequately prepared today.

“I believe the plan has to strike a balance between what you can prepare for and the unknown unknowns ... I think the major update to the plan that was there is contingency planning preparedness of equipment that can be used in case the unknown happens ... There are now some provisions within the plan that can address some of those unknowns should those unknowns occur.”

After Ms. McClenaghan noted that the contingency plan that's been introduced to the Ontario nuclear emergency plan doesn't actually require anybody to set up in advance where the emergency alternative headquarters would be; doesn't require extra education of the public in that new contingency zone within 20 kilometres; and doesn't require distributing protection iodide to those communities. Mr. Novog responded with platitudes that included few reassuring details - other than community centres have been set up - as to exactly how these updated emergency plans will be able to protect people remains unknown.

“Work done by the Royal Institute in London says that what you want to do is examine your preparedness and develop contingency strategies that are flexible and scalable across a wider region for an unknown event and I think that's exactly what the plan has put into place - its ability to move equipment and perhaps utilize things in different ways.”

Mr. Stensil wasn't nearly as impressed with the current emergency plan as Mr. Novog, perhaps because unlike Mr. Novog, Mr. Stensil is not an expert with academic credentials. Mr. Stensil said the current plan doesn't prepare for accidents where there are widespread off-site effects and people are displaced in the long term.

“Right now, our plans only deal with small scale accidents. But larger evacuations, long term contamination, how do you house people over the long term? None of that is dealt with in a detailed manner in the current plan.”

Ms. Smith explained that OPG has systems that operate independently and this past December they did a large-scale drill that involved the station going through a simulated event.

“We tested a large-scale release much like the Chernobyl event. We had 30 agencies respond so that tested the ability of the information flow between the power plant and the province and the municipalities. We met all of our drill objectives. There were 18 areas of improvement and that was released to the public, so they can actually see what came up during the drill.”

She added that OPG's reactors are Candu designed so they're much different than the reactors in Fukushima and Chernobyl.

“Our reactors have independent safety systems that monitor the reactors. One is called “seismically qualified “so in case of an earthquake we're able to shut the reactor down. We have many procedures in place and we regularly test our safety equipment.”

Ms. McClenaghan said it's not common for nuclear energy plants to be build next to densely populated areas because International Atomic Energy Agency has a siting guide that says nuclear atomic energy plants shouldn't be built next to densely populated areas.

“There should be periodic reviews during the life of the plants to make sure the population is not becoming too dense around those areas and it's specifically because of the issue of how well could you evacuate, how well could you protect the public. An emergency plan is because something else went wrong along the way; it's the last line of defence. If it's too populated its very difficult to protect.”

Moderator Steve Paikin said that 50 years ago Ontario Premier John Robarts made decision to build in Pickering, but 50 years ago Pickering was not a densely populated area.

He indicated that the fact that it is now doesn't seem to be an issue with the Ontario government.

“I haven't seen anything from the province that they should not keep putting more people in this area.”

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