Quake-up call

Leah Rumack
October 1, 1998


Will tremors like the one last week make us rue the day we built nuclear reactors atop an earthquake zone?

Think of a toy snowdome. In the middle is a nuclear plant. Pick it up. Shake it a bit. Drop it. Meltdown.

For years, that’s what some nuclear activists and scientists have been saying could happen if Ontario Hydro doesn’t take measures to ensure that its Pickering and Darlington nuclear power plants are ready for a strong earthquake.

And last week’s mini-quake — 5.4 on the Richter scale — shook all the old fears to the surface again.

“When you design a facility like a nuclear generating station that contains a huge amount of poisonous, cancer-causing, death-causing stuff, the safety assumptions go out the window the day the whole plant gets lifted up a couple of feet and dropped suddenly,” says Norm Rubin, director of nuclear research at watchdog Energy Probe.

No damage was reported at the Pickering and Darlington nuclear generating stations, though the line across which last week’s quake travelled runs smack dab underneath Pickering. Both plants sit on seismic fault zones, in essence weak spots in the earth’s crust.

At Ontario Hydro, spokesperson Pat O’Brien says, “Some people have concerns, but the design of our plants takes into account that there are seismic tremors throughout Ontario,” he says. “They meet rigorous engineering standards. We’re confident the plant will continue to operate safely.”

Not hot spot

Toronto, O’Brien wants to remind critics, is not an earthquake hot spot.

“He doesn’t know,” snaps Joe Wallach, a geologist who once worked with the atomic energy control board (AECB). “I get so sick and tired of listening to this crap from non-geologists.”

He points out that there have been many major earthquakes in the surrounding area in the past century, and some of those were totally unexpected, several registering as high as 6 on the Richter scale. (The 1989 quake in San Francisco was a magnitude-7 shake.)

An earthquake’s magnitude is not the only factor in the danger game, Wallach says. Proximity and ground quality are others.

“Pickering is not prepared for it, and that’s all there is to it, despite the rhetoric,” he says. “It’s not designed to withstand a major shaking. It will not ride it out if the quake is too close.”

Research by Wallach’s colleague Arsalan Mohajer, a University of Toronto seismologist, shows that a quake of 7 on the Richter scale is a possibility for the Toronto area.

According to Mohajer’s work, there is a one-in-10,000-years chance Toronto will be hit by a quake of that force. Trouble is, nobody knows how far into those 10,000 years we are.

That’s the kind of bet-hedging that worries Irene Kock of the Nuclear Awareness Project. Kock argues that it’s in Hydro’s interest to understate the potential for disaster because it can’t afford the upgrades that a worst-case scenario entails.

“The bottom line is it’s going to cost them big-time,” Kock says, adding that not preparing for the unimaginable is pure folly.

“Risk is the wrong word to use here, because the consequences are severe,” Kock says. “Parts of the province would be uninhabitable. The whole Great Lakes basin would be affected.”

More recently, the AECB, the nuclear industry’s regulating arm, has ordered Ontario Hydro to review its data.

Kock says there’s been controversy between the two for the better part of the last decade over how active the seismic faults in the greater Toronto area actually are.

Emergency measures Ontario, an arm of the provincial solicitor-general’s ministry, recently released a revised emergency preparedness plan for the event of nuclear disaster.

Jim Ellard, director of the unit, is unwilling to discuss the contingencies and recommendations being hammered out, except to parrot Hydro’s position that an earthquake causing a meltdown is “highly unlikely.”

Kock, though, says the document goes a long way toward beginning to grapple with worst-case scenarios, including the contamination of food, moving populations and isolating affected areas. A mock-disaster exercise is planned for Darlington next spring.

As if this weren’t eerie enough, there’s also the fact that if an earthquake ever did damage to inadequately prepared plants and wreaked havoc on the surrounding area, no one would be responsible.

Damage inflicted

That’s because, back in the 1970s, the burgeoning nuclear industry demanded immunity from liability for possible nuclear accidents. The result is the Nuclear Liability Act, which states that any damage inflicted by a nuclear meltdown is not the fault of the owner or operator of a nuclear plant.

Energy Probe and the city of Toronto went to court in an attempt to alter the act in 1993.

Ontario Hydro and the New Brunswick power authority intervened on behalf of the government, and the act was found to be “constitutionally valid,” in the words of one Hydro spokesperson. Energy Probe and the city subsequently dropped their appeal.

It’s because of this blanket lack of liability that Rubin is not impressed with the sincerity of Hydro’s pooh-poohing of safety concerns.

“You should view the assurances of Ontario Hydro the way you’d listen to assurances from inside a concrete bunker in a war zone,” Rubin says.

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