Make Toronto a nuke-free zone

Council motion asking the province to close aging Pickering plant argues that we can meet future electricity needs more cheaply with water-power imports from Quebec

Just to the east of Toronto on the Pickering waterfront sits one of the world’s largest and oldest nuclear plants. Living in the shadow of its eight reactors are more people – 2.2 million within 30 kilometres – than live near any other nuclear plant in North America. Way more.

The runner-up in that regard is the Indian Point plant outside New York City, with fewer than half as many nearby residents. 

But while everyone from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio calls Indian Point a public safety hazard that should be closed as quickly as possible, the Canadian response to calls to close Pickering has been remarkably different.

In the 45 years since the Pickering station was built (it was designed to last 30), it has been completely surrounded by homes, schools and shopping malls. But rather than feeling a sense of urgency to remove what is clearly a less than desirable neighbour, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is seeking permission to operate the plant until 2024. Its current licence expires in 2018.

Pickering is essentially the Atari of nuclear plants. Its “first-generation” design features weak safety systems and has been prone to breakdowns and serious safety infractions characterized as “incidents.” An OPG study found that Pickering has the highest operating costs of any nuclear plant on the continent, in part because it ranks at the bottom of the pack in performance.

Even more to the point, we have no need for the power that Pickering produces, partly because our demand has decreased 17 per cent in the past decade, thanks to conservation efforts, and partly because of other power sources. Last year, Ontario exported more power than Pickering generated, then sold it on the spot market at a massive loss. 

Meanwhile, the costs of renewable sources like solar and wind continue to drop. By 2018, the price of wind power in Ontario will officially be less than Pickering’s fuel and operating costs – and that’s not counting the massive debt rung up for reactor repairs over the past 20 years or the cost of storing deadly radioactive waste for a few hundred thousand years.

Where the province has been unable to see the wisdom of shutting down a nuclear plant now running beyond its intended lifetime and using technology that was cutting-edge in the 1950s, there is an opportunity for municipal leaders to make themselves heard.

Two Toronto councillors, Glenn De Baeremaeker and Gord Perks, have tabled a motion in council asking it to endorse shuttering Pickering when its licence expires. The motion received good support in its first vote but now needs to be passed by Mayor John Tory’s executive committee at its next meeting, on June 28. 

This is an excellent chance for our mayor to send the message that it’s time for Ontario to move into the modern age when it comes to electricity generation.

Tory might want to note that only now, after 45 years of operation, are emergency response plans for a catastrophic accident at Pickering slowly being put in place. As of 2013, OPG still did not have a functioning emergency alert system for the 10-kilometre zone around the plant, which includes parts of Toronto. And only thanks to the intervention of the Canadian Environmental Law Association and environmental groups are anti-radiation pills (KI pills) finally being made available to Toronto residents. (Order them free from

The backbone of OPG’s plan for a major accident such as a meltdown at Pickering – we’re all to hide in our basements – is laughably inadequate. It’s like something out of a Cold War public service film where the kids huddle under their desks until the mushroom cloud evaporates. Not surprisingly, when OPG put its idea to a Pickering-area focus group, the response was less than positive.

Nuclear countdown

1971: Year Pickering nuclear plant opened. Originally designed to operate for 30 years, it’s now 45 years old, making it the seventh-oldest nuclear station on the planet.

2024: Ontario Power Generation plans to continue operations until then. OPG’s licence expires in 2018.

2.2 million: People who live within 30 kilometres of the plant, twice as many as 45 years ago.

16,000: Person-years of employment that would be created from decommissioning and dismantling the Pickering site.

$900 million: Per-year savings in electricity costs if it were decommissioned.

June 28: Date of council’s executive vote on a motion requesting the province close Pickering.

If you agree, sign the petition at

Of course, it’s easy to see that should something go wrong at Pickering, chaos will ensue – the kind of chaos that happens when 2.2 million people find their lives at risk. Which is why it’s completely ridiculous to keep Pickering operating one minute longer than necessary.

Can our municipal leadership show the way to Queen’s Park?

The good news is that Tory, unlike our former energy minister, Bob Chiarelli, doesn’t regularly organize private fundraising dinners with the nuclear industry. 

And for our fiscally responsible mayor, we should also note that closing Pickering is in our economic interest: the plant’s high operating costs require a $900 million annual subsidy from ratepayers for electricity we don’t need.

In fact, anyone who has paid attention to the technological trends of the past 20 years can see that clinging to Cold War technology is not going to put us at the leading edge internationally. 

Right now, Ontario is trying to have its cake and eat it, too: keeping a dying nuclear industry on life support while trying to grow a new green technology sector. The problem is that the dinosaur in the room requires constant feeding and is sucking up a lot of the oxygen. We need to admit its time has passed and join the world in developing the energy technologies of this century, not the last one.

Angela Bischoff is outreach director for the Ontario Clean Air Alliance. | @nowtoronto

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