A Fukushima level Nuclear Disaster at Pickering: An assessment of effects considers what would happen if a serious nuclear accident, similar in extent to what took place in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011, were to occur at the Pickering Nuclear Station just east of Toronto.  In other words, what would happen if similar levels of radiation and a similar fallout distribution pattern occurred after an accident at Pickering?

The answer is alarming.  The modelling done by radiation expert Dr. Ian Fairlie finds that an estimated 26,000 cancer cases would arise over subsequent years, of which roughly half would be fatal.  Large areas of the Greater Toronto Area, including potentially Pickering, Markham, Newmarket, Aurora, Richmond Hill and northern Scarborough, would need to be evacuated and would become uninhabitable in some cases for 100 years or more. 

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Major transportation links, including Highways 401, 404 and 407 and the CN / CP / GO Transit rail lines would now pass through heavily contaminated “no go” areas, probably requiring massively expensive re-routing or detours.  Meanwhile, thousands of residents would essentially lose their homes with evacuation and no-entry periods ranging from 30 to more than 100 years affecting access to more than 154,000 homes. The economic losses of these uninsured housing losses (homeowner insurance does not cover nuclear accidents and Ontario Power Generation’s liability is capped at $1 billion) would exceed $125 billion. Of course, the economic consequences would extend far beyond these housing loses, with all economic activity grinding to a halt in a major part of the eastern Greater Toronto Area.

It is important to note that 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, of course, started with a major accident at the Chalk River reactor in Ontario in 1952. (For a full list of the many accidents at nuclear facilities around the world, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_power_accidents_by_country)

A common theme in these and many other high impact, low probability events (such as airplane crashes) is human error.  For example, one study concerning the failure of valves in nuclear reactors reported that “human error was responsible for 47.4% of the failures in Boiling Water Reactors and 45.7% in Pressurised Water Reactors. The main causes of failure were design and maintenance errors. Administration, fabrication, installation, and operator errors were the other human causes of valve failure.”

Inspecting the remains of the Fukushima reactors
Inspecting the remains of the Fukushima reactors

The Pickering Nuclear Station is the fourth oldest nuclear stations 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 plant has fundamental design flaws that would be unacceptable in newer facilities, a positive void coefficient and a shared containment system for multiple reactors that leaves it prone to the kind of cascading failures that devastated Fukishima.

The Pickering Station is surrounded by more people (within 30 km) than any other nuclear plant on the continent. It is highly questionable whether such a plant would ever be built in a location like this today.  That is partly because we also understand the growing range of threats to such high-risk facilities, including cyberattacks. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an urgent report in July 2017 warning that hackers had targeted the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation, which runs a nuclear power plant in Kansas.

The Pickering Nuclear Station also has the highest operating costs of any nuclear plant in North America, so the fundamental question becomes is it worth the risk of continuing to operate this aging plant?  This question is especially pertinent given that demand for electricity in Ontario has been steadily dropping for the last decade — demand has fallen by the equivalent of the power needed to supply all the homes in the City of Toronto twice over since 2005.  Currently, roughly half of the power Pickering produces is exported out of province, often at a loss.

Meanwhile, the Province of Quebec has made it very clear that it is interested in making a deal to supply Ontario with safe, waste-free water power. In the summer of 2017, it was reported that Hydro Quebec had offered Ontario power for 20 years at a cost of five cents a kilowatt hour (kWh).  This is roughly half of Pickering’s current per kWh operating cost and roughly a third of what Ontario Power Generation is seeking to be paid for power from rebuilt or extended-life reactors at Pickering and Darlington. 

In January 2018, Hydro Quebec signed a deal to supply Massachusetts with power at a cost of 3 to 5.3 cents per kWh.  The CEO of Hydro Quebec stated at the time that the company would be pleased to make a similar deal with Ontario.  Meanwhile costs for other sources of renewable energy continue to fall.  The province of Alberta, for example, recently received bids to supply wind power at a rock bottom cost of 3.7 cents per kWh.  This is even lower than the 6.3 cents Quebec agreed to pay in its last wind power auction, an example of the trend toward ever lower costs for solar and wind.  In Ontario, meanwhile, the Independent Electricity System Operators reports that energy efficiency savings cost it 2.2 cents per kWh in 2016 and projects that there remains massive potential to increase efficiency.

The consequences of a major accident at the Pickering would be severe.  Safer and less expensive options for meeting our power needs are readily available. There seems little reason to continue operating a high-risk facility that has already surpassed its design life. It is time to stop risking lives and turn to safer alternatives.