Too much trust in old nuclear plants
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