The Pickering A restart

David McArthur and Stephen Salaff
Natural Gas Market Report
October 17, 2000

Ontario Power Generation Inc. is seeking to restart in 2001-2002 the four reactors at its 2,060 MW Pickering A nuclear generating station near the eastern boundary of the City of Toronto, without a full Environmental Assessment Panel Review of needs and alternatives.

The $1-billion restart and OPG’s planned long-term lease of the 3,000 MW Bruce A nuclear generating station to British Power may lock Ontario into years more of nuclear expansion, preempting the consideration of high-efficiency natural gas generation alternatives for Ontario.

“If Pickering A returns to service, we can expect a more hostile business environment in Ontario for self generation of electricity, and for new independent power generators,” said nuclear critic Norm Rubin of Energy Probe.

Pickering A is the oldest commercial nuclear generating station in Canada the first of the four reactors was opened in 1971. The Pickering A emergency shutdown system is inferior to those at the nuclear stations built in Canada since Pickering A, and the combined effect of plant aging and obsolescence are seen by Rubin and others as an important issue in the restart deliberations.

However, OPG’s environmental assessment for the CNSC affirmed that Pickering A “has been operating safely for 28 years. If Pickering A were not safe it would not be returned to service.”

“Returning Pickering A to service remains a sound investment that will enhance our competitiveness,” OPG president and CEO Ron Osborne said optimistically. “The performance of our nuclear stations will be a major factor in how successful we are in the new competitive electricity market.” Rubin retorted “that was exactly what OPG’s predecessor company Ontario Hydro said about the earlier retubing of the Pickering A reactors, and we have powerful evidence that they were wrong then.”

Owing to management and plant performance problems, OPG laid up Pickering A in December 1997. The lay-up coincided with an unmet safety deadline for major upgrades to the controversial emergency shutdown system.

OPG announced an $8-billion Nuclear Assets Optimization Plan in 1997 to address “the major deficiencies in our nuclear operations,” indicated Osborne, who said that OPG will concentrate its limited resources on rehabilitating the Pickering B, Bruce B and Darlington nuclear stations. Pickering A and Bruce A remain shut down, but the fuel remains in the reactor cores. Pickering A and Bruce A can only restart upon authorization of the Nuclear Safety Commission, formerly the Atomic Energy Control Board, Canada’s nuclear regulator.

OPG decided in mid-1999 to return Pickering A to service, and in November 1999, formally applied to restart Pickering A. Before a licensing decision on the application can be made, the CNSC must consider the results of an environmental assessment.

While the restart application proceeds, the CNSC will consider the relicensing of Pickering A and Bruce A in January 2001, even in their laid up state. OPG will then seek to amend the Pickering A licence to allow the restart, with a final decision expected at the CNSC in late spring.

OPG representative, John Earl, told Natural Gas Market Report that after restart, Pickering A will operate at a capacity factor of roughly 80% for 10-12 years, when it will be reevaluated for operation. Given CNSC license approval, the station could continue to operate even longer. Earl pointed out that an estimate of the cost of the Pickering A layup depends on nuclear non-performance cost computation, and OPG has not performed this calculation.

Earl was unable to comment on the relationship between the restart and the ongoing development of competition in the Ontario electricity sector. He did not perceive a significant link between the restart and the Bruce A lease initiative.

The CNSC launched a basic level (called a “screening”) environmental assessment of OPG’s restart project in July 1999. The CNSC chose at that time not to institute a panel review, in which the federal minister of the environment establishes the terms of reference and appoints impartial panel members to review the proposed project, undertake public hearings, and prepare a report with advice on whether the proposal should proceed and under what conditions.

Chris Taylor of the CNSC’s radiation and environmental protection division, explained at the first day of the CNSC’s Pickering A restart environmental assessment hearing in Ottawa on October 5 that the Commission rejected a panel process because “except for a few individuals the public attitude research undertaken as a part of the environmental assessment did not identify a high level of concern in the community about the project.”

The research for the environmental assessment is being conducted by OPG itself, which submitted to the CNSC in April its “Environmental Assessment Report, Pickering A Return to Service.” According to Rubin, this arrangement, while apparently legal in Canada, violates the need for an independent and open review of the facts. “If a judge asked one party at a trial to write his decision before the trial began, we would soon have one less judge. Yet the relationship between CNSC and OPG here is just that cosy and improper.”

The CNSC will continue its public hearing on the Pickering A restart in Pickering on December 14. The deadline for intervenor submissions for the hearing is November 14. Following the hearing, and an expected 10-day period of deliberation, the Commission will announce its decision.

Due to a strong apparent perception that the CNSC has disparaged or dismissed public safety concerns, the City of Toronto and the City of Pickering have unanimously passed resolutions asking federal minister of the environment David Anderson to order a panel review of the Pickering A restart under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

The Toronto City Council on May 10 adopted a motion by Scarborough City Centre Councillor, Lorenzo Berardinetti, requesting Anderson to instruct the panel to deliberate on the risks associated with failure of the containment system during a severe accident, the need to restart Pickering A and alternative means of generating electricity, as well as an economic evaluation of the restart proposal and its alternatives.

Berardinetti told Natural Gas Market Report that “I am frightened by the potentially disastrous consequences for the Greater Toronto Area of a severe nuclear accident at Pickering. The distance of the Pickering nuclear plant from the nearest border of the City of Toronto, in Scarborough, is under 10 km. I prefer the use of natural gas instead of nuclear power to generate electricity.

“Pickering A was shut down in 1997 because of safety and management problems. Annex O of the March 1999 Ontario Nuclear Emergency Plan describes the harm that could occur in the event of a nuclear reactor emergency resulting in a major contamination of the environment. A large area may become uninhabitable for an extended period of time.” Berardinetti added that “I am disappointed that Mr. Anderson has thus far not responded to Toronto’s request.”

The City of Pickering on June 26 also passed a resolution calling for a panel review of the Pickering A restart. This position was echoed by a Durham Region motion on September 6.

Many environmentalists, energy industry and independent power proponents and other concerned citizens deplore the lack of an independent review of the restart venture, and criticize its safety, economic and environmental implications.

“We oppose the restart of Pickering A on safety, need and economic grounds. The CNSC acts as a buffer between the nuclear industry and the public. The current limited screening level assessment excluded consideration of impacts of a severe nuclear accident with failure of the containment system on public and worker health, the environment and the economy,” said Irene Kock of Durham Nuclear Awareness.

“We also need an independent review of the need to restart Pickering A it’s the only way to justify the risk involved in running the oldest nuclear station in the country for another 10 to 15 years.”

There are more people living around Pickering than around any other nuclear site in the world, more than 1.5 million in a 30 km radius. According to Annex O of the Nuclear Emergency Plan, a severe accident with widespread radioactive contamination could force the long-term evacuation of scores of thousands of residents in downwind areas. In an attempt to manage these effects, the authorities must undertake major, long-term rehabilitation operations to resettle displaced persons, overcome enormous economic disruption and losses, and protect and restore the environment.

Testimony by Prof. Robert Goble of Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts for Energy Probe and the City of Toronto in their unsuccessful 1993 legal challenge to the constitutionality of the federal Nuclear Liability Act, indicated that a severe nuclear accident with a relatively high expected frequency of 1 in 10,000 reactor-years of nuclear operation could deliver radiation doses of between 100,000 person-sieverts and 10 million person-sieverts to the population. These doses would result in 4,000 to 800,000 cancers.

Off-site early fatalities could reach the thousands or tens of thousands, depending primarily on meteorology and the number of reactors involved in the accident.

In the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, the International Atomic Energy Agency established a ranking system for nuclear accidents, called the International Nuclear Event Scale, designed to help the authorities communicate official information about accidents and their consequences to the public. This system, which classifies nuclear accidents into seven levels, has been adopted in Canada and globally. The Chernobyl accident was rated level 7.

The CNSC has limited the Pickering A environmental assessment to the consideration of less serious nuclear accidents rated at level 4 and below on the INES scale, which do not involve loss of containment.

Rubin regretted that “regulators like CNSC, who support nuclear power, don’t like to face up to the consequences of catastrophic accidents, because their job is to permit the risk to happen.”

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