Public hearings began Monday into the expansion of Ontario’s Darlington nuclear plant as Japan’s nuclear crisis unfolds.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which is running the hearings, decided to proceed with the hearing as planned noting that more hearings and submissions could be scheduled if it felt more information was needed.

The Ontario government wants to build two new reactors at the plant, located about 70 kilometres east of Toronto. If approved, the reactors would go into service in 2018.

The hearings, which will continue for three weeks and allow the public to voice any concerns about the project, get underway at a time of heightened global concern about nuclear safety following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

The tsunami knocked out power and emergency generators responsible for pumping coolant into six reactors. The loss of power led to the overheating of fuel rods, which in turn led to several hydrogen explosions that caused additional damage.

Ontario Power Generation nuclear plants

Darlington Nuclear is a four-unit CANDU (CANadian Deuterium Uranium) station with a total output of 3,524 megawatts (MW) and is located in the Municipality of Clarington in Durham Region, 70 kilometres east of Toronto. It provides about 20 per cent of Ontario's electricity needs, enough to serve a city of two million people.

Pickering Nuclear is on Lake Ontario just east of Toronto in the community of Pickering. Pickering A has two operating CANDU reactors and Pickering B has four operating CANDU reactors. Together these stations have a total output of 3,100 megawatts (MW), enough to serve a city of 1½ million people.

Source: Ontario Power Generation

On Sunday there were reports of food contaminated with radiation in Japan. People in Fukushima prefecture, where the nuclear plant is located, were told Sunday not to drink the tap water. Meanwhile, the restoration of some power allowed two of the six stricken reactors to be cooled on Sunday.

Last week nuclear industry representatives said Ontario is unlikely to have a similar disaster, as the province’s nuclear plants are located in areas of low earthquake risk.

Mark Mattson, a lawyer with the group Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, said the nuclear crisis in Japan means Ontario should rethink any move that will add more reactors.

"This is an industry that said this could never happen," said Mattson. "And this is a First World nation, Japan. This isn’t like it was happening in some Third World country where they didn’t have First World standards. This happened in a country very similar to Canada that said it would never happen, and it happened.

"It’s time for Canada to go ‘You know what, we might have been wrong, and now we’ve got to take a second look at this and make sure we learn from it.'"

Mattson said Ontario is holding the public hearings before it’s even known which model of reactor the province plans to buy.

He said his group has many nuclear experts but they can't give a full assessment without more details about the expansion plan.

"We better take a very close look at what happened in Japan and if we’re going to move forward, have confidence," said Mattson.

All views will be heard: CEAA spokeswoman

Duncan Hawthorne is the CEO of Bruce Power, which operates six nuclear reactor units about 250 kilometres northwest of Toronto on the shores of Lake Huron.

He said Japan’s nuclear crisis will likely play prominently at the Darlington hearings.

"It’s hard to imagine it won’t affect [the hearings], because of short-term emotion and short-term discussion, so I wouldn’t be surprised," Hawthorne said in an interview Monday morning with Heather Hiscox on CBC News Network.

"You probably wouldn’t choose to have this hearing right now, but then there’s been a tremendous amount of groundwork going on into this planning process. It’s been going on for 18 months, so there’s a lot of material there. At the same time, you can’t expect anything other than short-term sentiment."

Lucille Jamault, who is with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, insists the process will allow all views on the project to be heard.

"Everyone who will be there, their point of view will be taken into consideration," she said.