The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station and the Clean Air Alliance: A Power Struggle

By Daniyal Zia Jafri

Random Power Plant. PC: Tim Suess/Flickr_

The Clean Air Alliance is campaigning to shut down the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, a nuclear power plant producing 3252 MW of power – enough to electrify 533,328 North American homes.

The CAA has made claims that because the nuclear facility is located so close to an urban population, it is inherently unsafe – and that since “Ontario produces a surplus of electricity, it exports quite a lot of it and thus shutting down the reactors would not be a problem.” The CAA mentioned a “nuclear accident” in which the emergency shutdown system had to be engaged. They recommended that “we should just buy electricity from our neighbours in Quebec,” with the closest power plant being at minimum 739 kilometres away from Toronto.

The campaign used a typical Fox News style scare tactic video with airy music and the clichéd plea for viewers to “think of all the houses located so close to the reactor” in order to frighten citizens of a nuclear bogeyman. As if the reactor would even be allowed to function if it were at risk of meltdown, whether it is in a city or not.

The campaign was probably made by someone with no engineering background or understanding of safety standards, which in Canada are among the highest in the world. There are a total of 153 nuclear facilities in the world that generate over 1000MW of power – and that list does not even include smaller reactors. To this day, there have been 2 nuclear meltdowns: one in Chernobyl in the USSR and the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster. There was a partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania, but it was dealt with swiftly and no disaster occurred. Since the 1940s we have seen only 2 significant meltdowns with 153 facilities operating around the clock all over the world, perfectly safely with no concerning incidents.

The biggest myth about reactors is that when there is a meltdown, it goes “boom” – followed by a Hiroshima style mushroom cloud, turning the surrounding area into a parking lot. That is far from the case.

In reality, when there is a meltdown, the core literally melts. The molten metal falls into a containment vessel, which is basically a big concrete bowl in which the fuel becomes contaminated and loses a lot of its radioactivity, eventually solidifying. That is the absolute worst case scenario that will virtually never happen. There are so many redundant security systems, coupled with sensors, automation and caffeinated engineers to prevent any inefficiencies, let alone accidents, from occurring. The building containing the reactor core alone has 6-foot-thick steel reinforced concrete walls designed to take more abuse than the reactor can turn out.

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is one of the largest nuclear facilities on Earth, providing 14% of Ontario’s power. It is strategically located close to Toronto because it reduces transmission costs. Anyone with a basic understanding of electricity can tell you that no metal is a perfect conductor. When you have to transmit power over kilometers, there are considerable losses – and if you are going to pump out power for decades, you can save a lot of money by bringing the power plant close to your biggest customer: in this case, Toronto. The proximity of the plant minimizes losses, and the surplus goes to the rest of the grid.

Uranium holds more energy than any other fuel on earth. With a complete combustion or fission, approximately 8 kWh of heat can be generated from 1 kg of coal, 12 kWh from 1 kg of mineral oil, and around 24,000,000 kWh from 1 kg of uranium-235. Would you rather burn tons of coal each day and release millions of cubic meters of toxic gas into our atmosphere or produce a few barrels or radioactive waste that will be buried several hundred meters underground in abandoned, isolated locations where humans will never come into contact with it for millions of years? It is cleaner than fossil fuels and it produces more electricity than any renewable energy source. Canada has an industry for this power source. It has the man power and it has the technology to meet safety and environmental standards.

Due to its ideal location and technology, the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is an invaluable asset to young engineers and scientists through co-op and internships. It provides thousands of skilled labour jobs to machinists, technologists and engineers. Even local businesses around the reactor are dependent on the spending of the employees of the power plant.

The CAA claims that dismantling the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station will create a lot of jobs, and it will. It will create a lot of labour jobs at the cost of thousands of high paying jobs of engineers, technicians, safety crews and many other professionals. It will reduce the power supply of Ontario by 14%, resulting in a surge in the price of electricity. That, coupled with a lot of unemployment and a reduced opportunity for engineering students.

This would lead to industry in Toronto, especially manufacturing, to go down. Many other sectors would also be impacted, followed by a recession in the local economy.

Since there are six units, two of which are decommissioned, it would be much wiser to replace the two decommissioned units first with new reactors, then over the next few years one by one shut down each reactor and replace it with a new one. Shutting down the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is an unwise proposal, the consequences severely outweighing the benefits.