Ontario Power Generation is confident it can safely operate its 40-year-old Pickering nuclear generating station 18 per cent longer than originally planned, OPG officials told Canada’s nuclear regulator Wednesday. But members of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission still peppered emergency planners with questions about what happens if a nuclear accident does occur at the station, located in Canada’s largest urban area.
Pickering’s operating license expires June 30, and original plans called for it to be wound down in the next few years.
But OPG now wants to keep it going until 2020 without a major overhaul, to help cover the power shortfall that may occur when the Darlington nuclear station has to throttle back for a major refit starting in 2016.
A key question in this scenario is the lifetime of the station’s pressure tubes – tubes in the reactor core that hold the uranium fuel bundles.
The designers assumed they’d last for 210,000 “effective full power hours.” OPG says they can go for 247,000 hours.
“We are confident pressure tube life can be safely extended,” Glenn Jager, senior vice president of OPG, told the commission at a hearing in Pickering on Wednesday.
If a leak should develop, the reactor can be quickly and safely shut down, he said.
But the commission says OPG still has to perform more tests before it will give that clearance. Until those test results are in, it has ordered OPG not to operate any reactor beyond the current limit.
The commission has also cocked a skeptical eye at emergency planning in the area, should a severe accident occur and spread radiation into the surrounding area.
Evacuation warning sirens have been installed within a 3 kilometre radius of the plant.
But the commission has asked for more effective measures to warn those in a 10 kilometre radius, should it have to be evacuated. That would involve moving about 260,000 people.
Dave Nodwell of Emergency Management Ontario, which would co-ordinate an evacuation, said consultants are looking at the issue, but couldn’t say how soon new measures might be implemented.
Kathleen Chung, a Toronto resident with five grandchildren in Pickering, questioned preparations to distribute potassium iodide pills if a radiation leak occurs. The pills protect against some effects of radiation exposure, but must be taken as soon as possible.
Their effectiveness drops to 50 per cent protection if they’re taken 4 to 6 hours after exposure.
Chung said only four pharmacies in Pickering distribute the pills, which are free. One Pickering pharmacy she went to – not one of the designated stores – had no idea about the pills when she inquired, Chung said.
Some Toronto hospitals and pharmacies, which might expect an influx of radiation victims, were also ill-informed.
Chung said information about accident preparedness has been kept low-key:
“They’re afraid if they give people information, they’ll panic.”
But Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan told the hearing that people who live near the plant are confident about its safety, noting the population of the city has grown to 95,000 from 18,000 since it started up.
“We all moved here with the full knowledge the plant was open and operating.”
While OPG insists the plant is good for another five years, some intervenors at the hearing are taking aim at its age and record.
Arnold Gunderson, a U.S. nuclear consultant retained by Durham Nuclear Awareness, said Pickering’s age – dating from the early 1970s – counts against it.
“There’s no plant out there that’s much older than Pickering,” said Gunderson at a Queen’s Park new conference on Tuesday. He’s due to testify at the hearings on Thursday.
The lack of comparable plants means safety and accident statistics for the industry are based on much newer plants, he said. As a result, he said, it’s questionable whether they should be used to predict events at Pickering.
Gunderson also said that Pickering’s vacuum building, which is designed to suck in radioactive steam and air in case of an accident, can handle only one reactor failure. Pickering has six operating reactors.
But the accident at Fukushima damaged three side-by-side reactors simultaneously, he said.
“There are events that can knock out more than one, in which case the Pickering design is fatally flawed,” Gunderson said.
He also noted that OPG hasn’t yet completed updating risk assessments on two of its operating reactors.
Theresa McClenaghan of the Canadian Environmental Law Association criticized the lack of planning for a full-scale emergency at Pickering.
McCleneghan told the same news conference that plans are in place only for limited scale emergencies that would affect a 10 kilometre radius.
Even so, she said sirens and warning systems aren’t fully in place, nor have potassium iodide pills been distributed to people in the area. Potassium iodide pills reduce the damage from high doses of radiation.
“It’s time for Ontario to plan for catastrophic nuclear emergencies, and for Ontarians to be fully informed about nuclear emergency planning and how they as residents surrounding the plant would be expected to react in that unfortunate circumstance,” she said.
A Japanese expert told a conference in Ottawa recently that Japan had failed to take the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear accident seriously prior to Fukushima.
“This is exactly the situation we have in Ontario and it must not continue,” she said.
Greenpeace also presented a detailed brief criticizing nuclear emergency planning.
The three groups all asked the nuclear safety commission not to renew Pickering’s license. They also called for a “full public review” of nuclear emergency plans.
Source: The Star