The Notorious Pickering Nuclear Plant
Age improves cheese, wine, and even people, but not nuclear plants. Pickering sucks up lots of money and gives little but nuclear waste in return
By Angela Bischoff
Just east of Scarborough sits the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station—Ontario’s oldest, operational nuclear plant. When construction began on the Pickering station in the 1960s, the plant was designed to be one of the largest nuclear stations in the world. It was also designed to operate continuously for 30 years with a high level of reliability.
While the old Ontario Hydro achieved its first objective of building a massive nuclear station on the shores of Lake Ontario, it failed miserably on the second: Pickering is now notorious for its poor performance and high costs.
The plant hit rock bottom in 1997, when a scathing safety review led to the shutdown of the four Pickering A reactors. This, in turn, led to a massive ramp-up in the use of dirty coalfired electricity as a stop-gap measure while the plant was rebuilt.
The rebuild was a fiasco, with costs running massively over budget and completion years behind schedule. In fact, the project was essentially abandoned after the first two of four units were restarted, due to the recognition that it simply made no economic sense to continue to throw money down the drain on the aging plant.
Today, the story is much the same. Pickering has reached the end of its operational life. An independent study commissioned by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) found that it is one of the most costly nuclear plants to operate in North America. Rebuilding the plant would cost billions of dollars and here’s the rub: we don’t actually need the power that Pickering produces.
Electricity usage in Ontario has been steadily dropping since 2005. This is as much due to massive improvements in the energy efficiency of things like lighting, tvs, and appliances as it is to changes in our economy, including the shift away from heavy manufacturing. The Independent Electricity System Operator projects that electricity demand will continue to fall over the next decade as the province implements its “Conservation First” energy framework to keep electricity costs in check.
But some things never change, and among them are the grand plans of Ontario’s nucleardominated OPG, the successor to “bigger is always better” Ontario Hydro. OPG is proposing to continue operating Pickering for five years after its “best before” date by patching up systems and papering over cracks. Its justification is that Pickering’s power will be needed during its planned (and equally irrational) multi-billion-dollar rebuilding of the reactors at the Darlington Nuclear Station. So we will have a nuclear plant venturing beyond its design life into completely uncharted territory, while we undertake yet another nuclear rebuilding project that is almost certain to run massively over budget and be finished well behind schedule.
There’s a better answer. Shut down the increasingly dangerous Pickering station in 2015, and make a deal with our neighbours in Québec to import safe and low-cost water power. Québec has a growing surplus of electricity and earned an average of just over 4 cents a kilowatt hour for power exports in 2012. That’s less than half of what OPG expects power from a rebuilt Darlington Station to cost (a highly optimistic estimate). And that means we could save more than $1 billion a year on our electricity bills by cancelling the ill-conceived Darlington project, shutting down the dangerous Pickering station, and turning to clean, renewable power instead.
The Canadian Nuclear Regulatory Commission has told OPG it needs a much more robust emergency response plan if it is going to continue to operate Pickering. The better answer is just to shut this plant down and remove this threat to the safety—and pocketbooks—of nearby residents once and for all.
Angela Bischoff is Outreach Director for the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.