March 11, 2018
Report paints grim picture of Fukushima-scale nuclear accident in Pickering
A Fukushima-scale nuclear incident at Pickering would mean the loss of 154,000 Toronto-area homes for up to 100 years, says an environmental group
A Fukushima-scale meltdown at the Pickering nuclear power plant would exact a devastating human and economic toll on the province, causing 26,000 cases of cancer — nearly half of them fatal — and the evacuation of 154,000 homes in York and Durham regions and east Toronto.
Some areas would be uninhabitable for 100 years.
Losses from uninsured housing alone would be in the range of $125 billion.
That’s the catastrophic scenario outlined in a report by the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, published on Sunday to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the earthquake that triggered the Japanese nuclear disaster.
The non-profit coalition, which opposes nuclear power generation, wants Ontario to dismantle its oldest nuclear generating station in Pickering and buy water-generated electricity from Hydro Quebec. But provincially-owned Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has applied to have the Pickering plant’s operating licence extended beyond its Aug. 31 expiry.
Could Fukushima happen in the Toronto area? It wouldn’t take the precise circumstances of the Japanese disaster to result in a similar accident here, said Jack Gibbons, chair of the Clean Air Alliance.
“There’s a risk. No one can say for sure what the exact probability of a serious accident is but everyone knows the probability is greater than zero,” he said.
Nobody is suggesting there will be a tsunami in Lake Ontario, said Gibbons. But the Toronto region is subject to some seismic activity. It could also be vulnerable to a plane crash or a cyberattack. Then there’s the possibility of human error, the number one cause of nuclear accidents, according to the report, in which Gibbons wrote the forward and British expert Ian Fairlie modelled the potential radiation impacts it outlines.
“Could an accident happen? Accidents do happen. The nuclear industry told us Chernobyl would never happen. They told us Three-Mile Island would never happen. They told us Fukushima would never happen. But they did,” Gibbons said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI reported that a Kansas plant, known as Wolf Creek, was the target of one such attack, according to the New York Times.
Cleaner electricity could be supplied more cheaply without the risk of human and economic devastation, said Gibbons.
The Clean Air Alliance says that the 47-year-old Pickering facility, the oldest nuclear generating station in the province, is running on 1960s and 1970s technology.
OPG has applied to the federal Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to extend the operation of Pickering for 10 years with commercial operations ending in 2024, followed by steps toward shutting down the plant.
The government says it has taken every precaution to ensure the safety of its nuclear facilities.
“Safety and security of the province’s nuclear supply have always been the top priority for the government and Ontario’s nuclear operators,” said a statement from the press secretary for Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault, in response to Star questions about the licence extension.
“Nuclear facilities in Ontario regularly seek reviews and audits not only from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), as well as from groups like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Operational Safety Review Team, and the World Association of Nuclear Operators,” said an emailed statement attributed to Colin Nekolaichuk.
A statement from OPG said, “The Pickering Nuclear Station received the highest safety rating, ‘Fully Satisfactory,’ from the federal Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), which licences and oversees nuclear operations in the country. Pickering Nuclear received the highest safety rating for the last two years (2017 and 2016).”
In 2016 OPG took the plant out of service to conduct $75 million in maintenance. A news release at the time said OPG had invested more than $200 million in the Pickering station since 2010. The agency’s website says that Pickering provides 14 per cent of the province’s electricity. Last year, the plant was running 80 per cent of the time, above its target of 71.5 per cent.
That’s not good enough, said Gibbons.
“If you believe in nuclear power you should be building brand-new, state-of-the-art nuclear stations, which are much safer than Pickering,” he said.
“You wouldn’t drive up and down the 401 in a 47-year-old car. I don’t think it’s reasonable to continue to operate a 47-year-old nuclear station that was only designed to last for 30 years.”
The Ontario Liberal government says the plant will save the electricity system up to $600 million and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 8 million tonnes, while protecting 4,500 jobs in Durham Region.
Gibbons says the government, which eliminated coal plants, is appealing to voters, who like the high-paying jobs at Pickering. OPG says there are about 3,000 jobs at the nuclear plant. Those jobs could be transitioned to the decommissioning and dismantling of the plant — a process that would take more than a decade, says the Clean Air Alliance.
Its report overlays the impacts of Fukushima on the Pickering area. It notes that about 80 per cent of the Fukushima radioactive emissions were carried out to sea. If Ontario were subject to the same contamination levels and weather conditions as Japan, the highest doses of radiation would cover an area north of Lake Ontario between Toronto and Oshawa toward Barrie, and then southwest near London and Kitchener. Toronto to Hamilton would receive lower doses.
Pickering, Markham, Newmarket, Whitchurch-Stouffville, Aurora and northern Scarborough would suffer the most devastating impacts. About 653,000 people would need to be evacuated and key transportation routes such as highways 401, 404 and 407, as well as CN, CP and GO Transit rails, would run through contaminated areas, says the report.
In 2015, the Durham Region Health Department and OPG did a mass mailing of potassium iodide tablets, known as K1, to residents and businesses within 10 kilometres of the Pickering and Darlington nuclear generating stations. Those within 50 kilometres of those facilities can order the tablets from preparetobesafe.ca any time, says the health unit.
OPG has an arrangement with Canada Post to automatically send the tablets to new addresses or to address changes registered with the post office that are within 10 kilometres of a nuclear plant.
OPG’s liability is capped at $1 billion — leaving most property losses unrecoverable, said Gibbons.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada confirmed to the Star that private insurers do not offer coverage for nuclear accidents. Earthquake insurance is not part of a standard homeowner policy although it is available as an add-on. About 31 per cent of Canadian policyholders buy it, said the industry group. That includes 45 per cent of policyholders in British Columbia and 4 per cent in Quebec, the areas most vulnerable to seismic activity.