Lessons learned from the Pickering nuclear alert

Sunday morning, an emergency alert was sent out across Ontario about an incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. The alert was mistakenly sent during a routine test by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre, which coordinates the government’s response to major emergencies.

The alert brought nuclear to the forefront, along with many misconceptions about Ontario’s largest provider of clean and reliable electricity. This is what we’ve learned.

The industry is prepared to respond in the event of an emergency

“OPG has a sophisticated and robust notification process in place that we would immediately follow in the unlikely event of an incident at the station,” Chief Nuclear Officer Sean Granville said.

Reporting to the Ministry of the Solicitor General, Emergency Management Ontario would manage the off-site response to nuclear emergencies. It would determine the appropriate level of public action based on the Provincial Nuclear Emergency Response Plan.

This 200-page plan, which was last revised in 2017, provides clear instructions to every municipality that has a nuclear station within its jurisdiction. Local police, fire and ambulance crews implement the emergency plans.

Each of the three nuclear stations in Ontario (Pickering, Darlington and Bruce) also has its own plan and world-class emergency preparedness group.

The nuclear industry has a rigorous regulatory regime

The nuclear industry has one of the most rigorous regulatory regimes in the world. All Canadian nuclear operators work with the Word Association of Nuclear Operations to achieve the highest possible standards of nuclear safety. They also work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies. An IAEA report showed that Canada has established and maintains a robust and comprehensive nuclear security infrastructure.

As well, at any given time, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has dedicated inspectors onsite at each of Canada’s nuclear power plants. It performs thousands of inspections annually to ensure Canada’s nuclear generating stations are operating safely. In 2017, the CNSC awarded OPG’s Pickering and Darlington stations its highest safety rating.

Ontario’s nuclear generating stations provide clean and reliable electricity

In 2018, the Pickering, Bruce and Darlington nuclear stations generated 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity. It was their power that allowed OPG to close its coal-fired power plants, significantly reducing the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.

On a lifecycle basis, electricity from nuclear power generates an average of 16 g of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour. That’s more than hydro (4 g) and wind (12 g), but less than solar (22 g for concentrated solar power [CSP] or 46 g for photovoltaic [PV]). That compares to natural gas at 469 g/kWh and coal at 1,001 g/kWh.

In Canada alone, nuclear energy helps avoid 80 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year. That’s about the same as taking 15 million passenger vehicles off the road.

Located east of Toronto, the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is one of the largest nuclear stations in the world. It operates six CANDU reactors. The facility has been safely and reliably providing Ontario with electricity since 1971.

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