John Spears and Theresa Boyle
March 14, 2003
When the Pickering nuclear generating station switched off the power on Wednesday because of a mechanical problem, the only public word was a cryptic announcement on an obscure page of a Web site.
The notice posted by the Independent Electricity Market Operator, or IMO, on its Web site did not identify the Pickering nuclear station; it merely said in excess of 900 megawatts of generating power was likely to be forced from service.
In fact, the Pickering failure took more than 2,000 megawatts of power from the Ontario grid – enough to supply about 10 per cent of Ontario’s demand on an average day.
The Pickering A nuclear generating station was finished in 1971 for $662 million, which is about $3.2 billion in today’s dollars. Cost of the restart: $2.5 billion.
Why the secrecy?
Ontario Power Generation Inc., or OPG, the provincial government-owned company that operates Pickering, says failures at its plants are confidential information because competitors could exploit the information if it was publicly known.
It acknowledged the problem at Pickering only after word had leaked out.
But some privately owned generating companies, opposition politicians and critics are questioning why the public shouldn’t be told when a big generator fails.
The problem at Pickering came when one of the four working reactors was already out of service because of a breakdown and a second was taken out of service for scheduled maintenance.
The two other reactors had to be shut down when a pipe supplying ordinary water to the steam boilers that power the units sprang a leak.
The IMO, which operates Ontario’s power grid, is reviewing its market rules, which prevent it from identifying which reactors fail and how long they’ll be out of service.
The Independent Power Producers Society of Ontario argues everyone should be able to see what generators are producing, and at what level, in near-real time, as is the case in Alberta.
The OPG, which controls 70 per cent of Ontario’s output, counters that would be harmful. It says Ontario’s market is closely connected with markets in New York, Quebec, Michigan and New England that don’t have such open disclosure, and Ontario should model its rules on theirs.
The independent producers say the OPG has a big edge over its competitors because it always knows the operating status of at least 70 per cent of the market.
Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, said the IMO, the provincial energy ministry and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission should all be more vigorously exposing the workings of the market.
Liberal MPP Sean Conway lashed out at the OPG and the government. “I think the people of Durham region and the GTA have a right to be mad as hell about what they don’t know and about what the government is not telling them about what’s going on (with) hydro generally, and at Pickering particularly.”
Asked about the OPG’s argument it doesn’t have to explain what’s going on for competitive reasons, Conway said: “Bullfeathers. I just don’t believe that. People in Pickering and people in the GTA and the province generally should not accept anything that Ontario Power Generation is telling them.”
New Democratic Party leader Howard Hampton was also critical. “An extended Pickering shutdown could plunge the province into darkness on a cold winter’s night or hot summer’s day. The Pickering information blackout must be lifted immediately and a public inquiry started right away.”
A spokesperson for Energy Minister John Baird said the minister is awaiting the results of the IMO’s review of its rules.