October 4, 2001
Not prepared for emergencies, expert says
OTTAWA – Ontario has dragged its feet far too long revising a provincial plan to handle emergencies at nuclear power plants, a member of the federal atomic safety watchdog complained here yesterday at a hearing into restarting the Pickering reactors.
Chris Barnes said he found it “incredulous” that provincial officials have been discussing a new emergency action plan for roughly five years.
The plan co-ordinates response to a radiation leak or other major nuclear incident from local police and fire, hospitals, federal nuclear regulators, Emergency Measures Ontario and Ontario Power Generation, which operates the Pickering nuclear station east of Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario.
The delay means decisions have not yet been taken on whether to mark evacuation routes with signs, how to distribute radiation-protective doses of iodine, and how wide an area to notify after a major incident, including a terrorist attack.
Under provincial law, any nuclear emergency plan must be approved by the Ontario cabinet. Although the only approved plan dates from 1986, provincial and local officials have actually been using an interim revised plan for the past several years, a hearing by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission was told.
“I am personally incredulous that we are still only at the consideration of an interim plan,” said Barnes, a part-time commission member and geologist at the University of Victoria.
He said the delay was striking in a province that generates half its electricity from nuclear power and that has recently experienced a significant environmental health problem, apparently referring to Walkerton’s contaminated water.
Barnes noted that OPG, successor to Ontario Hydro, has already spent $1.3 billion overhauling the older half of the Pickering station, four nuclear reactors shut down for the last four years.
“I’m amazed that another part of the Ontario government wouldn’t have brought along its side of the equation,” he said to Neil McKerrell, director of Emergency Measures Ontario.
McKerrell did not respond to a question about whether a lack of political will was delaying the revised plan. But he commented on the drawn-out discussions between EMO and numerous agencies and local governments.
“It would be simpler if there weren’t so many people involved in the process,” he said.
EMO estimates it could take between four and nine hours to evacuate the 20,000 people from the Pickering plant and the three kilometres around. To evacuate a 10-kilometre radius – which includes the town of Ajax – would involve moving 180,000 people and would take between 19 and 29 hours.
The nuclear safety commission must approve a licence before the refurbished Pickering reactors can be restarted. A formal decision is not expected for several weeks, but the federal regulator has never yet refused to licence a commercial nuclear power reactor.
Response from Energy Probe’s Norman Rubin
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commissioner Chris Barnes is right to be “incredulous” and “amazed” that Ontario still has no nuclear emergency plan. But Dr. Barnes’s own Commission has contributed to this hazardous situation by refusing to insist that Canada’s reactors have emergency plans before the Commission grants them a license to operate. Obviously, reactors without an adequate emergency plan cannot be considered to be safe to operate – yet the Nuclear Safety Commission continues to certify them as safe, by blithely licensing them to operate.
Moreover, in 1987, an Ontario government Working Group recommended that Ontario’s Nuclear Emergency Plan should be redesigned to respond to the enormous radiation leak that would result from a sophisticated terrorist “hijacking” of a CANDU nuclear generating station like Pickering, just outside Toronto. In response, Ontario Hydro aggressively lobbied the Ontario government with all its resources, from the Chairman down to junior staff, to defeat that sensible and prudent proposal. As a result, the emergency plan that Dr. Barnes impatiently awaits is grossly inadequate to respond to the threat we now face. I sincerely hope Dr. Barnes can convince his colleagues on the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to do something about this deplorable situation, and not just to express amazement at it.