Too much trust in old nu­clear plants

Toronto Star - - OPINION - JACK GIB­BONS Jack Gib­bons is chair­man of the On­tario Clean Air Al­liance.

The Wynne gov­ern­ment in On­tario is con­sid­er­ing spend­ing more than $300 mil­lion to patch up Canada’s old­est nu­clear gen­er­at­ing sta­tion in hopes of keep­ing it run­ning for an­other eight years or more. It’s kind of like de­cid­ing to buy new tires, a new trans­mis­sion and a new wind­shield for your 20-year-old Buick LeSabre, ex­cept this me­chan­i­cal di­nosaur is a gi­ant nu­clear plant lo­cated in the heart of our largest ur­ban area.

Con­struc­tion on Pick­er­ing be­gan in the 1960s and its first re­ac­tors were pow­ered up in 1971 — the same year Led Zep­pelin re­leased “Stair­way to Heaven.” De­spite 45 years of op­er­a­tion, its owner, On­tario Power Gen­er­a­tion (OPG), only re­cently de­cided to see if the mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing around the plant are aware of its plans for what they should do in the event of an emer­gency at the plant. It quickly found out that a) lo­cal res­i­dents had no clue what they were sup­posed to do; and b) they weren’t buy­ing OPG’s plan to “shel­ter in place” (stay put) dur­ing a high-level emer­gency.

No other nu­clear plant in North Amer­ica even comes close to hav­ing as many peo­ple on its doorstep as the Pick­er­ing Nu­clear Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion. The In­dian Point nu­clear plant out­side New York City is No. 2 and has half as many peo­ple liv­ing within 30 kilo­me­tres. That has not stopped New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo from call­ing for In­dian Point to be closed, es­pe­cially in the wake of rev­e­la­tions that the ag­ing plant is suf­fer­ing from se­ri­ous “em­brit­tle­ment” of key com­po­nents, in­clud­ing bolts that hold crit­i­cal cool­ing sys­tem com­po­nents in place.

Sadly, in­stead of see­ing this kind of prin­ci­pled lead­er­ship in On­tario, we are see­ing the op­po­site — a stealthy ef­fort to keep an old and un­eco­nomic nu­clear di­nosaur on life sup­port.

Pick­er­ing is al­ready suck­ing up $900 mil­lion per year in out-of-mar­ket sub­si­dies for its power. As one of the high­est-cost nu­clear plants on the con­ti­nent, keep­ing Pick­er­ing run­ning means higher elec­tric­ity rates.

And it’s not like we need its power: In 2015, On­tario ex­ported more power than Pick­er­ing pro­duced — and lost money do­ing it.

So why, af­ter promis­ing to close Pick­er­ing by 2020 at the lat­est, are the Lib­er­als now work­ing to keep it limp­ing along? It could be like your Buick: You bit the bul­let on that costly new trans­mis­sion and just can’t ad­mit it was a big mis­take. Re­pairs to Pick­er­ing’s re­ac­tors in the late 1990s went mas­sively over bud­get and were years late in be­ing com­pleted.

The truth is, how­ever, that “fix­ing” Pick­er­ing is like fix­ing your ag­ing Buick — it is an on­go­ing and costly bat­tle. One re­ac­tor has re­cently been off­line for months for re­pairs, and break­downs and “in­ci­dents” are reg­u­lar oc­cur­rences at North Amer­ica’s fourth-old­est nu­clear sta­tion. Pick­er­ing was the site of the worst loss-of-coolant ac­ci­dent at a Cana­dian re­ac­tor, dur­ing which work­ers had to siphon heavy wa­ter off the floor of the con­tain­ment build­ing and back into the re­ac­tor in 1984.

De­signed in the 1950s and ’60s, Pick­er­ing is an un­usual nu­clear fa­cil­ity: It has mul­ti­ple re­ac­tors shar­ing a sin­gle con­tain­ment build­ing and has no se­condary fast-shut­down sys­tem. Sep­a­rate con­tain­ment for in­di­vid­ual re­ac­tors and re­dun­dant fast-shut­down sys­tems have been stan­dard is­sue for most nu­clear plants for years.

The real rea­son the gov­ern­ment wants to keep Pick­er­ing go­ing is that our en­ergy plan­ners re­main some of the last peo­ple on the planet who still be­lieve that nu­clear en­ergy is the best way to meet our need for a brightly lit home or a cold drink. Only France out­ranks us for de­pen­dence on nu­clear en­ergy.

It’s a highly ir­ra­tional be­lief, par­tic­u­larly when our neigh­bours to the east have a large and grow­ing sur­plus of low-cost and safe wa­ter power avail­able for ex­port. But tap­ping into the power Que­bec has avail­able right now would mean ad­mit­ting there are many bet­ter op­tions than con­tin­u­ing to op­er­ate three ag­ing — and gi­gan­tic — nu­clear plants to meet our elec­tric­ity needs. And just like with your Buick, some of our lead­ers just can’t seem to let go.

The prob­lem is, we are all go­ing to pay the price for their love af­fair with this out­dated tech­nol­ogy.

It’s not like we need power: In 2015, On­tario ex­ported more power than Pick­er­ing pro­duced — and lost money do­ing it

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