November 28, 2009
An aerial view shows the unusual, multi-reactor set-up at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.AARON LYNETT/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
Kathy Hogeveen remembers the sugar cubes most.
They were there, along with the free coffee, at the visitor's centre at Pickering nuclear station. It was the mid-1970s and Hogeveen and her friends were typical teenyboppers — restless and bored. They used to ride to the plant on their bikes to watch movies about the wonders of safe, clean, low-cost nuclear power. There, in what seemed like their own private theatre, they'd suck on a seemingly endless supply of cubed sweets.
It wasn't a long trek. The station's reactor containment buildings were just 1,200 metres away from Hogeveen's yard on Colmar Ave., a block from her public school. Surrounded by empty fields and without much to do, popping into the neighbouring nuke facility seemed perfectly normal.
"I probably watched that movie over 50 times," Hogeveen recalls of her visits to Canada's first commercial nuclear plant, which between 1971 and 1986 grew from one to eight reactors. "It's amazing how much time we spent hanging around that place."
Thirty-five years later, the Pickering station is under the microscope. Its four Pickering B reactors, built in the mid-1980s, will within a few years come to the end of their safe operating lives. Ontario Power Generation, the Crown corporation that owns and operates the plant, is expected to decide before year's end whether it makes sense to mothball the Candu reactors or spend billions of dollars extending their life beyond 2050. One stop-gap being considered is a quick tune-up and short life extension.
The clock is ticking. Pickering B's reactors contribute more than 2,000 megawatts to the province's power mix, enough electricity over a year to supply 1.6 million homes. If they are to be shut down as early as 2012, then Ontario must make sure it has another source of power to take their place. Those who argue against refurbishment cite the high cost of operating the Pickering station and the poor performance of two Pickering A reactors that were renewed between 2003 and 2005. They also point to the cost overruns and delays related to refurbishments of two Candu reactors at the Bruce generating station, a three-hour drive northwest of Toronto, and one reactor at the Pointe Lepreau generating station in New Brunswick.
"The industry has not delivered on its promise of rebuilding old reactors on time and on budget," said Greenpeace activist Shawn-Patrick Stensil.
But risks related to safety are what most concern the former head of Canada's nuclear safety regulator. Linda Keen, president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission between 2001 and 2007, told the Star during an exclusive series of interviews that the rate of population growth around Pickering isn't being taken seriously enough.
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"Population growth means the risk has increased," Keen said. "To be honest, I don't know how you'd vacate the Pickering area alone in the event of an emergency."
Pickering was much smaller back when Hogeveen was a child. In 1974 fewer than 25,000 called it home. Since then the population has almost quadrupled to 95,000 and is expected to surpass 132,000 in 2013. Neighbouring Ajax, with a population similar in size to Pickering, has seen near identical growth.
As OPG has pointed out at community meetings, Pickering is "an emerging growth centre and is expected to lead the nation in residential growth over the next 10 to 20 years."
Both Pickering and Ajax fit almost entirely within what's called the "primary zone," a circle around Pickering generating station that extends in every direction for 10 kilometres. It also includes parts of Scarborough to the west and Whitby to the east.
In the event of a nuclear accident that requires evacuation of the primary zone, it's estimated more than 240,000 people in as many as 100,000 vehicles would need to be relocated within 24 hours. That's on top of the plant's 2,800 employees.
By comparison, Ukraine authorities evacuated a 30-km zone after the Chernobyl reactor explosion in 1986. About 14,000 people living in the area were told to leave. They never came back.
A faulty Russian reactor design and poor training was found to be the cause of the Chernobyl disaster. Ontario Power Generation and its predecessor Ontario Hydro have assured over the two decades since that such an accident could not happen with a Canadian-designed Candu.
But accidents aren't the only risk. A no-fly zone does not exist around Pickering station, according to regulatory documents. The reactor containment buildings were not designed to withstand a large airplane crash, making the plant more vulnerable to the kind of terrorism witnessed in 2001.
Keen adds that the risks are statistically higher because of the design of Pickering station, which at one point was host to eight reactors. "That's not the norm," she said, noting that most nuclear plants in Europe and the U.S. only have one or two reactors.
Pickering has six. Just east, Darlington station has four and is slated to get two more. The Bruce plant has six, growing to eight after refurbishments. "The concept of multi-unit reactors is, to my knowledge, quite unique to Canada."
It's for this reason that Keen, in mid-2007, asked her commission to study population densities and "buffer zones" surrounding nuclear plants around the world. She wanted to know the international norm, suspecting that Pickering likely wouldn't be built today based on current population numbers around the sensitive primary zone.
She was equally concerned about population trends. "The aspect of future as well as current population is important as a refurb (refurbished reactor) could be there in 25 or 40 years and a new plant for 100 years," said Keen, adding that neither OPG nor the Ontario government seem concerned.
Keen understands the challenges of enforcing nuclear safety. In November 2007 she was head of the safety commission when it ordered Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to shut down its medical isotope-producing research reactor at Chalk River. The regulator, citing safety concerns, issued the order because emergency power systems on the half-century-old National Research Universal reactor had not been connected and was in violation of Atomic Energy's licence.
The problem, politically, is that the shutdown led to a global isotope shortage and, to calm international concerns, Parliament overturned the regulator's decision. Days later Keen was fired, taking the fall for what the natural resources minister at the time, Gary Lunn, called a "lack of leadership."
Many industry experts have since come to Keen's defence, arguing she acted the way a nuclear safety regulator should. Keen, who is a cancer survivor, knows all about the importance of isotope-assisted diagnosis and treatment. But "my job was not to worry about the supply of isotopes," she told the Star. "It was to make sure the facility was safe."
It's the same reason Keen ordered the study on buffer zones just a few months before her dismissal. Two years later, that study is still not done. Aurčle Gervais, a spokesman for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said the agency has not proceeded "due to competing priorities."
He said a study is now anticipated to begin in late 2010 or early 2011 – too late to influence a refurbishment or life-extension decision for Pickering.
In the meantime, life goes on within the contiguous zone, the area that would be most affected by an accident at Pickering. Over at Sir John A. Macdonald Public School, built a year before Ontario Hydro broke ground on the nuclear plant, the containment buildings and surrounding transmission lines are as much a part of the scenery as the local parks, plazas and fire hall.
Sir John's has the distinction of being one of the closest elementary schools in the world to a nuclear power plant, if not the closest. About 460 students go there, and 37 graduating classes have passed through its halls.
Principal Michael Bowman said the station, while less than two kilometres away, is accepted as part of the community. Students don't appear bothered by its presence, and parents – many of them employees of the plant – have not raised concerns.
"I don't really even think about it, to tell you the truth," said Bowman, 39. "It's been there as long as I've been around." In that time there have been no major incidents.
Still, students are routinely reminded of the plant and the risks of being so close. The school holds annual evacuation drills, and every few years it takes part in a Durham Region drill that puts students on a bus and takes them to a designated holding location. "It's the real deal," said Bowman.
At the beginning of every school year parents are asked to sign a waiver form giving school officials approval to hand out potassium-iodide pills to their children in the event of a serious radiation leak. The pills flood the thyroid glands so they won't absorb as much deadly radioactive iodine.
Every school within the three-kilometre zone has a stockpile of the pills, along with a list of students allowed to take them. Daycares, hospitals and seniors' homes have their own supply. But the risk of a major accident at Pickering station is low, according to a study last year for OPG as part of an environmental assessment of Pickering B. If such an accident was to happen, the utility assured the safety regulator last fall that the primary zone could be evacuated in less than seven hours, well within the 24-hour window required by law.
Even with a near doubling of the surrounding population expected after 2025, evacuation could be done in less than 10 hours – and that's taking into account bad winter weather, rush-hour driving conditions, and psychological factors such as mass panic, according to the study.
OPG makes another key assumption: Road capacity will improve as population grows, so no need to worry about an additional 70,000 cars trying to flee the primary zone.
In such an unlikely event, "effective evacuation of the three-kilometre and 10-kilometre regions around Pickering Nuclear can be accomplished well before any required release of radioactivity following an event at the station," OPG spokesman Ted Gruetzner said.
But some industry observers, including Keen, warn that such evacuation plans fail to anticipate the chaos likely to result. They also tend to overlook what happens to people after they have been evacuated. How are they fed? How long are they kept? When and how do they return home?
"I still believe it's one of the most unplanned things," said Keen.
The number of organizations with overlapping responsibilities can also complicate the outcome. On the federal level there's the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Health Canada, Transport Canada and Public Security Canada. Provincially, there's Emergency Management Ontario and Ontario Power Generation. On a municipal level, there's Durham Region, the City of Toronto, municipal fire and police.
As a teenager, Hogeveen and her friends just went about their days, occasionally riding to the Pickering plant to snatch a few sugar cubes.
Today, in her late 40s, Hogeveen has five children and lives in Cambridge. Asked whether she'd ever move back to her old neighbourhood, she doesn't think twice. "I wouldn't want to live that close to a nuclear plant."