The Ontario government has announced its support for a plan to refurbish the aging Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, which produces about 14 per cent of the province’s electricity. The project, which is expected to cost $2 billion for engineering and design work, will extend the life of the plant by decades and help meet the growing demand for clean and reliable power.
Pickering nuclear plant to operate until mid-2030s
The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, located east of Toronto, is one of the oldest nuclear power plants in Canada. It has six operational units, four of which are known as Pickering B and have been operating since the 1980s. The other two units, known as Pickering A, have been operating since the 1970s and are scheduled to be shut down by the end of 2024.
The current licence for the Pickering B units expires at the end of this year, but Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the provincial Crown corporation that owns and operates the plant, has applied to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to extend it until 2026. This would allow the plant to continue generating electricity until the refurbishment project begins, subject to the approval of the CNSC.
The refurbishment project, which is expected to be completed in the mid-2030s, will involve replacing key components of the reactors, such as fuel channels, feeders, and steam generators, to extend their lifespan and improve their performance. The project will also create about 11,000 jobs per year and increase Ontario’s GDP by $19.4 billion, according to OPG.
Ontario seeks more nuclear power to meet future needs
The decision to refurbish the Pickering nuclear plant is part of Ontario’s long-term energy plan, which aims to secure more electricity supply in the face of increasing demand. The province expects its electricity demand to grow by 50 per cent by 2050, driven by factors such as population growth, electrification of transportation and heating, and economic development.
Nuclear power currently provides about 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity, and the province plans to maintain or increase that share in the future. Nuclear power is considered a clean and reliable source of energy, as it does not emit greenhouse gases and can operate around the clock. However, nuclear power also poses challenges, such as high capital costs, long construction times, radioactive waste management, and safety risks.
In addition to refurbishing the Pickering plant, Ontario is also pursuing other nuclear projects, such as:
- Refurbishing the four units at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, which is more than halfway done and expected to be completed by 2026.
- Refurbishing the six units at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, which is expected to start in 2023 and last until 2033.
- Building four small modular reactors (SMRs) at the Darlington site, which are expected to be operational by 2028 and provide enough power for 1.2 million homes.
- Exploring the potential of SMRs in remote and northern communities, as well as industrial applications, such as mining and hydrogen production.
Ontario’s nuclear plan faces opposition and scrutiny
While the Ontario government and OPG have touted the benefits of nuclear power, the plan to refurbish the Pickering plant has also faced opposition and scrutiny from various groups, such as:
- Environmentalists, who argue that nuclear power is not truly clean or green, as it produces radioactive waste that needs to be stored safely for thousands of years, and poses risks of accidents, leaks, and proliferation. They also contend that Ontario should invest more in renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydro, as well as energy efficiency and conservation measures, to meet its electricity needs and climate goals.
- Indigenous communities, who have expressed concerns about the impacts of nuclear power on their lands, waters, and rights, and have called for more consultation and consent from the affected First Nations and Métis. They have also raised questions about the transportation and disposal of nuclear waste, and the potential effects of radiation on human health and wildlife.
- Ratepayers, who have complained about the high cost of electricity in Ontario, partly due to the expensive contracts signed with OPG and Bruce Power for nuclear generation. They have also questioned the economic viability and transparency of the nuclear projects, and whether they will deliver the promised benefits and value for money.
The CNSC, the federal regulator that oversees the safety and licensing of nuclear facilities in Canada, will have the final say on whether the Pickering plant can continue operating and undergo refurbishment. The CNSC will hold public hearings and consultations to review OPG’s applications and assess the environmental, technical, and social aspects of the project. The CNSC will also monitor and inspect the plant throughout its operation and refurbishment to ensure compliance with the regulatory requirements and standards.