Hearings on Canadian nuclear plants to go ahead

Hearings into the building of new nuclear reactors in Ontario and the refurbishing of existing ones in Quebec are scheduled to go ahead despite calls to delay them.

Ont., Que. resist calls to delay meetings on reactor construction, refurbishment

Hearings looking into the building of new nuclear reactors in Ontario and the refurbishing of existing ones in Quebec are scheduled to go ahead despite calls to delay them in light of the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.

Japanese authorities have been working around the clock since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami to cool reactors at the damaged  plant and prevent radiation leakage.

A bird's eye view of Ontario's Darlington Nuclear Generating Station. A number of groups are asking for a delay of hearings scheduled for next week on two new reactors. (Google)

The tsunami knocked out power and emergency generators responsible for pumping coolant. The loss of power led to the overheating of fuel rods in some of the plant's six reactors, which in turn led to several hydrogen explosions that caused additional damage. Power loss also led to overheating in rooftop pools storing spent, but still radioactive, uranium fuel rods.

On Wednesday, Greenpeace and Ontario's nurses asked the provincial government to delay hearings on the building of two new reactors at the Darlington nuclear station, 70 kilometres east of Toronto. The hearings are scheduled to take place next week  in Courtice, Ont., about 50 kilometres east of Toronto.

"Fukushima is a reminder that wherever there is nuclear power, there is a realistic potential for a nuclear accident with enormous cost to the environment, our economy and our society," said Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a nuclear analyst with Greenpeace.

Stensil pointed out that a number of countries, including China, Germany and Switzerland, have decided to postpone their nuclear energy plans in response to the Japanese crisis.

He also said Canada's Nuclear Liability Act puts a cap on damages to be paid by the nuclear industry in the event of an accident — a sign of the potentially serious consequences of a release of radioactive material.

Nurses group cites health risks, costs

Registered Nurses Association of Ontario executive director Doris Grinspun agreed, saying industry and government must rethink the need for nuclear power, citing health risks, high costs and the availability of safer alternative energy sources.

"Let us not be smug," she said. "No doubt the nuclear experts and government leaders in Japan were confident that the sheer magnitude of this week's disaster could never happen there. But, of course, it could, and it did."

Other groups, including the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, have also come out in favour of a delay in the Ontario hearings.

Those groups and other critics say Ontario Power Generation's proposal for the new reactors is vague and incomplete. The publicly owned OPG generates and sells electricity in the province. 

"The nuclear crisis in Japan underscores the importance of detailed planning and meticulous scrutiny. This hearing has neither," said Lake Ontario Waterkeeper president Mark Mattson.

A three-week hearing on Darlington begins on Monday while a re-licensing hearing, including refurbishment of the Gentilly-2 facility in Becancour, Que. will take place April 13 and 14 in Becancour, according to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

In a news release issued Wednesday, the commission said it is watching events in Japan and will take any relevant lessons into account in the upcoming hearings.

New Ont. reactors planned for 2018

The Ontario government shows no signs of slowing down its plans to build two new reactors at Darlington nuclear station, which if approved would go into service in 2018.

While the Progressive Conservatives say that if elected, they would go ahead with plans to expand nuclear energy, Ontario's New Democrats oppose nuclear expansion.

Meanwhile, a water leak this week at the Pickering nuclear power plant 35 kilometres east of Toronto has focused attention on the current debate surrounding nuclear energy in Ontario.

Officials say the release of 73,000 litres of demineralized water into Lake Ontario on Monday night does not pose any significant threats to public health.

During a speech on Wednesday to the Toronto Board of Trade, Denise Carpenter, CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, defended nuclear energy and said decision makers should not be motivated by fear.

Carpenter said the plant in Fukushima was damaged not by the earthquake, which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, but by the subsequent tsunami.

"A 40-year-old reactor complex that was designed to withstand a 7.8 or 7.9 earthquake actually withstood a much larger quake without significant damage," Carpenter said.

The nuclear plants currently in use in Canada are "among the most robust designs in the world," Carpenter said and have been built to withstand earthquakes, although they are located in areas where major quakes are uncommon.

With files from The Canadian Press