Running out of nuclear options

Ontario's nuclear regulator is seeking an unprecedented 13-year licence to keep pumping out nuclear power, but what's good for the nuke industry may not be good for residents living within the impact zone of a severe accident

A roomful of demanding taxpayers and interest groups can pose an awful inconvenience to a nuclear operator seeking to extend the life of its plant. 

That’s exactly what Ontario Power Generation (OPG) faced this week at licensing renewal hearings for its Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington as about 80 oral presentations and just as many written submissions filled the agenda. 

Ever since Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, Canadian nuclear industry regulators have been getting an earful from the public and environmentalists. They want answers to unsettling questions about nuclear safety, especially since it’s human negligence that caused the Fukushima accident.

Now the nuclear regulator is seeking an unprecedented 13-year licence – two- to five-year terms are the norm – that critics say will have the effect of silencing their voices until the next Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) licensing hearings in 2028. 

“A 13-year licence is a decision to end public comment on nuclear safety,” says Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a nuclear analyst at Greenpeace. “They’re just trying to shut the public up.”

OPG is promising other opportunities for public comment. And it says the licence will prevent the rules from changing during the course of a planned 13-year refurbishment of its reactors. 

But what’s good for OPG may not be as good for residents – including Torontonians – living within the impact zone of an admittedly unlikely but possible severe nuclear accident. 

OPG’s planned refurbishment of Darlington will keep it pumping out power for several more decades. And while authorities insist nuclear power is safe for people and the environment, critics have a raft of concerns they want addressed before any licence is granted, including cooling-system changes to put an end to the millions of annual fish deaths at the plant.

They also want to know whether OPG has an emergency plan in place realistic enough to handle a Fukushima-style accident at Darlington. 

The position of Darlington’s four reactors on the shoreline of Lake Ontario, which provides drinking water to 9 million Canadians and Americans, would make a severe accident uniquely catastrophic. Contamination of the lake would leave its water undrinkable for decades and make communities depending on it unlivable.

Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, says, “There is no emergency plan in place that would save the drinking water or the lake.” 

A public study of the impacts of a level-seven, or Fukushima-equivalent accident was called for after CNSC hearings in 2012.

Though the CNSC now claims to have produced that study, the released study appears instead to chart the impacts of a level-six accident – equivalent to the obscure 1957 disaster in Kyshtym, USSR, which caused minimal impact beyond the accident site. 

Critics also say the study is based on assumptions vast enough to render its conclusions meaningless. 

For example, to assume no radiation release in the first 24 hours after an accident rules out the possibility of an explosion at the plant. And to assume releases will not extend beyond 72 hours is unrealistic, since people are still being exposed to radiation from Fukushima today, says Dr. Cathy Vakil, a family doctor and board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians For The Environment.

Nukes by numbers

200+ kms 

Distance high-level radiation travelled after Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters

10 kms

Distance of communities from Pickering and Darlington nuclear reactors where OPG has distributed potassium iodide pills to residents

50 kms

Distance from Darlington to Toronto


Population living within 20 kilometres of Darlington


Population living within 20 kilometres of Fukushima

As well, Vakil says, disease effects predicted by the study are based largely on the food and water intake of a typical 30-year-old male, ignoring a large swath of the population, including women and children, who are more sensitive to radiation. “There are just a lot of things wrong with this study.” 

It took a public browbeating at the 2012 hearings to get the regulator to order a first-ever distribution of potassium iodide (KI) pills to people within a 10-kilometre radius of Darlington and Pickering nuclear plants. 

KI pills protect the thyroid gland, the part of the body most sensitive to radioactive iodine, when taken several hours before exposure and every 24 hours thereafter. The new program also allows anyone within a 50-kilometre radius of a plant – a zone extending into Toronto’s Beaches area and Markham – to receive the pills free by request. 

New Brunswick, however, already distributes KI within 20 kilometres, and Switzerland now supplies pills in advance of an accident across a 50-kilometre radius. A new Fukushima study shows a 30-fold increase in thyroid cancer in children under 18 there. The fact that the highest rates appear in non-evacuated children living between 50 and 60 kilometres from the plant adds weight to critics’ calls for a wider distribution of KI. 

But KI pills don’t protect against leukemia or the many other cancers caused by radiation. Evacuation still remains the preferred protective action, says the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS). 

In the course of Japan’s 2011 disaster, there were calls to evacuate specific areas farther than 50 kilometres from the accident site. Today a 20-kilometre zone remains uninhabited. That makes Darlington’s 10-kilometre evacuation zone look completely arbitrary, says Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. 

“It’s not based on anything except ancient history,” she says. 

A change may be afoot, however, as evacuation zones are currently being reconsidered, according to the MCSCS. 

Residents falling outside those evacuation zones may be ordered to “shelter in place” during a severe nuclear accident. Concrete and concrete-block construction provides the best shelter against radiation, yet only for a limited time. Still, unless mapped out in advance, safe structures will be hard for people to find in the event of an accident.

A high level of scrutiny and assessment needs to be brought to an evacuation plan of this scale, says McClenaghan. 

Evacuation failures happened at Fukushima: hospital personnel abandoned patients, and truck drivers delivering emergency equipment to the accident site dumped their loads well away from the ailing plant. 

Says McClenaghan, “If we’re going to rely so much on nuclear power in this province, we should have the best-in-class emergency planning to go with it.”

Whether a revamped evacuation plan for the Darlington area will meet those standards won’t be known until it’s released in December, long after the licence renewal hearings have ended. | @nowtoronto

UPDATED Friday, November 6, 2015, 10:26 a.m.: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story erroneously stated that fish deaths are being caused by releases from Darlington into Lake Ontario. The deaths are actually caused by fish being pulled into the nuclear plant’s cooling system. 

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