Japan quake triggers Ont. nuclear safety debate

The nuclear crisis facing Japan in the wake of Friday's earthquake and tsunami has triggered debate about whether a similar disaster could happen at Ontario's nuclear plants.

Japan's nuclear crisis in the wake of Friday's earthquake and tsunami has triggered debate about whether a similar disaster could happen at Ontario's nuclear plants.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) operates the Pickering nuclear plant, located about 30 kilometres east of Toronto, and the Darlington nuclear plant, located about 70 kilometres east of Toronto in Clarington, Ont.

Pierre Tremblay, senior vice-president of nuclear programs for OPG, told CBC News that a similar disaster is unlikely to happen in Ontario.

"I can assure people of Ontario that our plants are built to exacting standards," said Tremblay. "And while the plants themselves are built in a low seismic area, should events occur, our staff is trained and our equipment is designed to withstand a significant seismic activity."

The Pickering Nuclear Plant is one of two nuclear power plants operated by Ontario Power Generation. Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press (Canadian Press)

Tremblay said he and his colleagues have been closely watching events in Japan, where Friday's 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami have led to cooling systems failures at a handful of nuclear reactors.

Japanese officials have been pumping sea water into some reactors to prevent full-scale meltdowns.

Linda Keen, former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, appeared on CBC News Network on Monday and said it's possible, but unlikely, that plants in Canada could experience multiple power failures that could lead to core meltdowns.

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 located 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

"I think that the idea that you could have an earthquake and that you could have multiple occurrences at the same time is possible in any facility," said Keen.

"Could this happen exactly in this way? Not likely, but there is a tendency for us to look at everything in isolation rather than predicting a high risk of multiple things happening at the same time."

Norm Rubin is director of research at the anti-nuclear energy group Energy Probe. His group has long been calling for higher seismic safety standards at both the Pickering and Darlington plants. Rubin said his group is concerned because OPG plants are "old plants [that] are judged by old standards."

"We're often talking about the tradeoff between money and nuisance on one hand and safety on the other hand," said Rubin.

"Whenever human beings make tradeoffs on how much money … to expend on safety they always find that there's a point passed which they say 'Come on, you're going too far.' In hindsight after an accident, those compromises often look crazy. It's true at Pickering and it's true at Darlington," said Rubin.

"The Japanese weren't expecting a magnitude 9.0 and they are the most experienced earthquake watchers in the world. We are neophytes at this."

Still, Tremblay said Ontario nuclear officials are impressed with Japan's "very determined and organized response" to the disaster. Regardless of the outcome, Tremblay said the disaster is something Canadian officials can watch and learn from. 

"We are monitoring the situation closely," said Tremblay. "Where it makes sense and they can use our support, we certainly will be there. This company has lots of capability to see what support we can provide."

Tremblay also said experts at OPG will be available, if asked, to help Japanese nuclear experts deal with quake damage at their reactors.

Tremblay said OPG plans to meet with municipal officials in areas near their Ontario plants to address local fears about nuclear safety.

The crisis in Japan has prompted the City of Toronto's Emergency Managment team to issue a reminder to Torontonians, encouraging residents to take steps to be prepared for any emergency situation.