NOW Toronto
March 20, 2018
Angela Bischoff

Hacking of Ontario’s nuclear plants “a very serious question,” says Premier

The growing range of threats to aging, high-risk facilities like the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station now includes cyber attacks

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is the fourth oldest nuclear station in North America and one of the largest. It relies on systems – including computer systems – designed in the 1960s and 70s. Many experts have noted that the station has fundamental design flaws that would be unacceptable in newer facilities.

Meanwhile, the Pickering station is surrounded by more people within 30 kilometres than any other nuclear plant on the continent. It is highly questionable whether such a station would ever be built in a location like this today. This is partly because we understand the growing range of threats to such high-risk facilities, including now from cyber attacks. 

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said on March 16 that she considers the possibility of Russians hacking into Ontario’s nuclear plants “a very serious question” and “something that we are obviously constantly asking about and making sure that all precautions are being taken,” after the New York Times reported that Russian operatives have successfully hacked into the control rooms of civilian nuclear power plants in the United States and in several European countries since 2015.

No sabotage was carried out, but according to computer screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security, Russian hackers, says the Times report, “had the foothold they would have needed to manipulate or shutdown power plants,” as well as water and electricity systems.

The best precaution against a nuclear cyber attack would be to shutdown Pickering when its license expires in August. 

According to new modeling carried out by UK radiation expert Ian Fairlie for the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, the consequences of a major accident or breakdown at the Pickering Nuclear Station would be more severe than we’ve ever imagined. 

Large areas of the Greater Toronto Area, an estimated 650,000 residents and 154,000 homes, including areas as far north as Markham, Newmarket and Aurora, would have to be evacuated.

The health consequences would be disastrous. In his report, A Fukushima-level Nuclear Disaster at Pickering: An Assessment of Effects, which was released last week, Fairlie predicts an estimated 26,000 cancer cases – half of them fatal – in the fallout zone around Pickering if a serious nuclear accident similar to the one in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011, were to occur. 

Homes would become uninhabitable for 30 to 100 years or more. Major transportation routes, including Highways 401, 404 and 407 and the CN, CP and GO Transit rail lines would pass through heavily contaminated “no-go” zones. 

Homeowners would not be fully compensated for their losses since Ontario Power Generation’s liability is capped at $1 billion and home insurance policies do not cover losses in the event of a nuclear accident.

The exact chain of events that led to the Fukushima disaster does not have to be replicated to result in an accident of a similar scale here. 

Nuclear energy, by its very nature, presents extraordinarily high consequences for failure. Assurances that it can never happen here should be contrasted with the surprising regularity of nuclear accidents, with one major accident occurring roughly every 10 years worldwide.

This unfortunate history includes Ontario, where a major accident at the Chalk River reactor in 1952 caused an explosion that destroyed the nuclear reactor’s core and sent some four tonnes of nuclear contamination into the air. The clean up required the dumping of more than a million litres of contaminated water into the Ottawa River. 

A second accident at the facility in 1958, that one caused by the rupture of several nuclear rods in the reactor’s core, resulted in a fire which spread deadly nuclear particles throughout the facility and downwind from the plant. Some 600 men were involved in that clean up. 

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. reported back then that very few of those involved in the clean up were exposed to radiation levels considered dangerous. However, there has been no known follow up to determine if the incidence of cancer among those involved in the clean up was higher than normal.

A common theme in these and many other events is human error. Mistakes happen – like they did at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island – but with nuclear energy, the consequences can be massive.

So the fundamental question becomes: is it worth the risk of continuing to operate this aging station well beyond its design life when we have safer, renewable and lower cost options such as Quebec water power? 

Angela Bischoff is Director of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.