Citing the potential for a repeat of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance wants an interim moratorium on the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station’s (PNGS) operation.

The aging plant is slated for closure in 2024, and the alliance says a moratorium should be imposed until the operators can prove to the public that it poses no risk to public safety. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) operates the plant, which consists of eight CANDU reactors— a type of reactor that uses deuterium oxide, or heavy water, as a moderator and coolant and natural (not enriched) uranium as a fuel. Two of the plant's reactors have already been permanently shuttered because of their age.

OPG has been lobbying Ontario’s provincial government to keep the plant open until 2025. Currently, it is slated to remain operating until 2024, at which point decommissioning would begin. The OPG gained its last licence renewal for the plant in 2018.

The clean air alliance made its demand March 30 in a letter addressed to Rumina Velshi, president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).

However, Marc Leblanc, CNSC commission secretary, said in a release in early April that an interim moratorium is not under consideration. “The commission sees no basis on which it might reconsider its licensing decision to authorize the operation of the PNGS.”

The CNSC did not return National Observer’s phone calls.

Fears of ‘Fukushima-type accident’

OPG says the plant’s exemplary safety record is proof there is no cause for concern.

The Ontario Clean Air Alliance is calling for an interim moratorium on the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station’s operation, saying it has the potential for a nuclear meltdown.

However, a number of experts told National Observer the Pickering plant is well past its prime and shouldn’t be allowed to continue operations.

Jack Gibbons, president of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, cited the plant’s aging pressure tubes as one reason the plant should be shuttered.

“It turns out that OPG does not have the data to show that Pickering’s pressure tubes are still safe for service. If the pressure tubes aren’t fit for service they could potentially rupture or break, and in the worst case scenario there could be a Fukushima-type accident,” Gibbons said.

In 2011, a massive earthquake triggered a subsequent tsunami in Japan and caused the explosion and meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima, leading to a large-scale release of radioactivity and other harmful aerosols and gases.

The clean air alliance notes PNGS has at least twice as many people living within 30 kilometres as any other nuclear station on the continent. A 2018 study the alliance commissioned from Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment, cites dire consequences should a meltdown occur at PNGS.

It says a Fukushima-level accident at PNGS could cause approximately 26,000 cancers, require the evacuation of more than 150,000 homes and more than 650,000 people, and trigger a $125-billion loss in the value of single-family homes in the Greater Toronto Area.

Aging pressure tubes ‘a prime concern’

The pressure tubes in question are about 10 centimetres in diameter and some six metres long. Each pressure tube in a reactor holds 12 uranium bundles, which are the basis for the nuclear reaction that produces heat and provides the energy. The tubes — there are approximately 400 of them in a reactor — also carry the coolant. But like any aging part, the tubes could fail.

Gordon Edwards, president of the non-profit Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, says OPG is “running these plants like no other CANDU reactor in the world.”

He explains that every other CANDU reactor that reaches a certain age is scheduled for refurbishment or re-tubing, which is a replacement of the pressure tubes and feeder pipes that go into the reactor’s core and cool the fuel.

Over their lifespan, the tubes are subjected to great heat, pressure and radiation from the fissioning uranium atoms. Over time, the stress to the tubes can cause them to become brittle and develop blisters that potentially become the site for an elongated crack or a serious rupture.

“Cooling the fuel is essential in nuclear power. If you don’t cool the fuel even after shutdown, you can have a meltdown. That’s what happened at Fukushima. I’m not saying every loss of coolant will lead to a meltdown, but that’s the precipitating cause that could lead to a meltdown. So therefore the integrity of the piping is a prime concern,” Edwards said.

While the Pickering plant must inspect the tubes as a condition of its operating licence, Edwards notes it only tests a fraction of the tubes, fewer than 10 per cent. Nor are the tubes uniform. One might have signs of degradation while the one next to it might be fine. According to Edwards, that makes the sampling less than reassuring.

Frank Greening is a research scientist who worked for OPG for 23 years. During that period, he estimates he spent half the time researching pressure tubes.

Greening says the benchmark for operating performance for CANDU reactors is roughly 30 years at 80 per cent capacity. Pickering reached that benchmark around 2015, but since then the OPG has “kept pushing the envelope, and the limiting factor is the pressure tubes’ fitness for service.”

According to Greening, “every time you turn around, they try and squeeze a little bit more juice out of the lemon. This is a way to keep the nuclear industry gainfully employed, and stretching the lifetime of these reactors as far as they can. I think they’ve gone too far.”

Neal Kelly, the director of media, issues and information management for OPG corporate affairs, said in a statement to National Observer: “Pickering Nuclear has an exemplary safety record and is considered among the world's top performing stations, as recently recognized by the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

“Station operations are strictly regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and they have stated there are no safety concerns with respect to pressure tubes or any other aspect of our station — any suggestion to the contrary is simply false and misleading. OPG employees live and work in this community and will always consider safety our top priority.”

Edwards, however, remains adamant Pickering should be closed. He points out the remaining two “A” reactors at Pickering each only have a single fast shutdown system. New CANDU reactors are built with two fast shutdown systems.

“I believe this is a matter for considerable concern by everybody,” he said. “You shouldn’t be taking chances with the public. If you really want to continue running those plants, then you should refurbish them. You should re-tube them, replace those tubes.”

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I don't think their concerns are genuine. They're just saying what methane money wants said.

I do not understand why the disaster press are not all over this perfect freakout story? maybe their owners own shares in the nuclear and fossil industries???

The government is prioritizing jobs for a few over safety for many. The schedule for refurbishment is long past. OPG needs to continue to maintain its safety record or get out of the nuclear business. Just do it.

The repeating of their ridiculous "Fukushima-type accident" claim, in the headline to boot, is disingenuous at best. Fukushima was caused by a tsunami created by a seismic event under the ocean - Pickering sits on the side of a lake in an area of low seismic activity. Those conditions simply cannot be reproduced.

Criticize the aging infrastructure all you want, but this kind of sensationalist nonsense is unbecoming of the National Observer.

Well said. There are so many more holes in the justification for publishing this type of fear mongering. Reactor technology, Safety systems, Pressure tube replacement programs, etc. I'm not going to continue with NO if it resorts to this type of "journalism".

Extraordinary events CAUSED the failure at Fukushima, but the failure itself was basically a coolant failure leading to a meltdown. It wouldn't have been a whole lot different in its effects if the cause had been something else. The claim here is that aging equipment could lead to a coolant failure which might cause a meltdown; if it did, the resulting event would not be that dissimilar from Fukushima.
So you can say it probably wouldn't happen because, say, the aging equipment isn't really in that bad of shape, or because there are plenty of safety features that would prevent a meltdown in the event of the pipes failing. But if it did happen, it would be inaccurate to say that a meltdown in Ontario would somehow be very different from one in Japan just because the meltdown was a result of different events.

And ya know, ten years later they STILL haven't stopped radioactive stuff leaking from the Fukushima reactors, or really fixed them in any way; I don't think there's been an earthquake/tsunami combo going that whole time. The Japanese HAVE made it illegal to report on it, though, so I guess that's good enough? Out of sight, out of mind.

The coolant failure at Fukushima occurred because the emergency generators were located in the same zone that got inundated by the tsunamis. Had they been located at a higher elevation the failure would have at least been partly mitigated by energized coolant pumps.

Pickering is a different design in a stable geological area. Replacement of the coolant pipes is part of ongoing maintenance. There is no evidence presented so far that Pickering was subject to lax maintenance and flawed design to the degree that Fukushima was. To say differently is as logical as saying GM should recall its cars when Kia discovers a problem in one of their models.

The Ontario Clean Air Alliance seems to think that eliminating ~6 GW of GHG free electricity generation, while the Darlington power plant is undergoing tube refurbishment, is a good idea. It is, if you want to push natural gas generation or large power imports from the USA.

All CANDU heavy water reactors have an incredibly good safety record during operations spanning 50 years. As others have pointed out, comparing the Fukushima site on a geologically active volcanic island is very different from the Pickering site on 4.5 billion year old tectonically dead Canadian Shield. CANDU also has many safety features, such as a vacuum building to suck radioactive material out of a ruptured reactor containment building, that Fukushima did not have.

The FUD being directed against the Canadian nuclear industry has absolutely no basis in fact. It is a product of some environmentalists wishful/fearful ignorance. It does not deserve the attention of credible journalists.

I can hardly wait until AECL SMRs begin deployment across Canada and around the world. That will solve the climate change problem for real :)

"solve the climate change problem"

It might provide some mitigation for further climate disruption but it doesn't help much with the damage from existing cumulative emissions.

Small modular nuclear reactors are far too expensive for the amount of electricity they generate to be part of the climate solution......unless the dying nuclear industry is proposing we build them every damn where. But then of course, the radioactivity problem we're facing with already produced nuclear waste, will mushroom.

And how about those long kept secret plans to store the world's nuclear waste in a big hole in Newfoundland??? Makes those tourist adverts about the pristine nature of that land a bit moot...but then, the nuclear industry has long imagined we can just bury plutonium and other radioactive waste products and just forget about them.
It's not a transitional technology, however you try to spin it....its another too big to fail industrial mega fantasy. Sad but true.

Thank you for bringing up the issue of the existing waste. Yes, a big, deep hole in Labrador is proposed, not just for Canadian reactors but for other nation's as well, most importantly the CANDUs sold to places like India and so forth. Let that proposal live or die on its merits, or lack thereof.

Even if anti-nuke groups get their way and every reactor in the country is shut down based on emotion, not rational, in-depth analysis, the issue of the waste remains. What is their solution other than silence while they search the web on computers and Ontario households powered by Pickering, Darlington and Bruce?

Emission-free power at that.

Nuclear power with its high cost and permanent radioactive waste problem has been made a dead-industry-walking by the advent of cheaper zero-emission power solutions. Past time to replace it with solar, wind, geothermal and storage so we can stop worrying about melt-downs, leaks, and runaway costs. Unfortunately, we never be able to stop worrying about nuclear waste but al least we can stop adding to the problem.

Exactly...........the costs alone makes it unsustainable. But then there's also the massive amount of water it uses........a product not exactly in infinite supply any more. Old style industrialists like big and centralized though........and cost over runs are profit for them, not problem.

An interesting article, though a bit sensationalistic.
You'd have thought that a cost estimate to replace the pressure pipes would have been germane and appropriate.

Another article on this same site today mentions a figure of $15 billion for that replacement. You can see why they wouldn't want to do it. But that underlines a fundamental problem with nuclear power: It costs so bloody much.

Fukushima and Pickering cannot be compared outside of both being nuclear power stations. The respective geographical and corporate contexts are completely different.

One analysis about a year after the tsunami hit the Fukushima facility reiterated the years of corruption, incompetence and egregious cost-cutting of Tokyo Electric, which was recently encapsulated by the Globe's Doug Saunders in his call to retain nuclear power to fight climate change along with new and larger crash investment programs in renewables.

Fukushima's design was supposedly earthquake and tsunami-resistant in the above corporate context. What actually happened was that a mega-thrust subduction earthquake topped 9 on the Richter scale, a level which exceeds the design requirements of most reactors in the world, which in turn changed the geology in the immediate vicinity of the plant. The coast sank by a metre, and so did the elevation of the protective tsunami wall which was then easily overtopped by successive waves that inundated the reactor chambers, which were again in turn under-designed for such a breach and a build-up of pressure. Most egregiously, the emergency power generators were stupidly located in the zone of potential inundation, and were thus knocked out of commission while the gas pressure and heat mounted. Had the EGs been located 20-30 metres above the sea on a nearby slope they would have done the job they were intended for.

Can anyone in the Clean Air organization provide evidence that Pickering shares any of Fukushima's design flaws, corrupt corporate culture, inadequate safety features or geological characteristics? Can anyone in Clean Air provide solid, proven, confirmed evidence beyond supposition and exaggeration that nuclear power has killed millions of people worldwide, or dare to compare nuclear to the documented hundreds of millions of people who have died from fossil fuel emissions over the last 200 years? Can Clean Air folks please provide an analysis of the energy required to electrify the economy to fight climate change while concurrently eliminating huge sources of emissions-free power from the grid?

Indeed, let's build a national smart grid and power up millions of solar roofs and thousands of wind farms and explore net metering and distributed power and storage and coupling it all to existing centralized power plants. And properly decommissioning nuclear plants and developing a plan to deal with the highly problematic waste. But calling for the shut down of plants without a plan? That is beyond naive.

Even David Suzuki succumbed to paranoia on Fukushima and cited the possibility that radiation will be carried by the Japan Current to the West Coast and cause an epidemic of cancer. As it tuned out, 10 years of testing has revealed that NO radiation from Fukushima was found on the coast of BC, only typical trace background radiation given off in nature. The debris from the tsunamis that floated to BC was a lot more problematic for a couple of years, but that's gone now.

If there is any evidence to the contrary, please provide it. Meanwhile, we have too much work to do on a Transition Plan and not enough time to respond to fear mongering.

I watched the Pickering plant be built when I was a school boy in Pickering Township. From the 5th Concession, high upon the scarp-like old shore of the glacial Lake Iroquois, the distant lake gleams like an ocean; we could see the reactor domes rising on the shoreline about ten miles south of our house. The concerns about a meltdown started some years after the plant began reacting power out of uranium.

I moved back in the early 70s and rented a place in the Town of Pickering, not far from the Nuclear Plant. In the winter, the evening sun cast a shadow of the dome literally across our house. The only worry we had back then was sightings of UFOs over the plant. I’ve seen them myself: they’re unidentified, alright, but plain enough for anyone to see. One of the theories had to do with alleged nuclear leaks and some kind of atmospheric reaction. I’ll stick with “Unidentified.”

Not all the reactors operate at once. Most are spelled off for maintenance —that means the pressure tubes. I recall people worrying about those pressure tubes waaaaay back. If I recall right, there was a leaky one...but, you see that huge building along side the row of reactors? That’s the capture space: any leaks end up in there where they can be mopped up.

As to “Fukushima-type accident,” gimme a break! It’s on a lake in a low-quake zone, no tides, no tremors, no nothing. The design and auxiliary power (the latter having failed completely in Fukushima) are different and superior. There’s just no other reason to make that comparison except to alarm and sensationalize.

The reactors still reacting will be decommissioned soon enough. Stop worrying. I stopped glowing in the dark almost immediately after returning to BC. Now I’m old and not sick from the Nuclear Plant.

No-one is. No-one is sick from any non-USSR nuclear power plant ever -- Fukushima included. The Japanese government says otherwise, but it would, wouldn't it.

Most of the above comments are just natural gas money talking. They think they're not natural gas shills because the government collects the methane money as royalties, etc., and trickles it down to them.