Pickering nuclear plant from Frenchman's Bay. (JasonParis. 2011) CC BY 2.0 Pickering nuclear plant from Frenchman's Bay. (JasonParis. 2011) CC BY 2.0

Premier Doug Ford’s announcement that his government would keep the aging Pickering nuclear station online represented a regrettable (but unsurprising) continuity with Ontario’s pan-partisan tradition of using the electricity sector to dole out rewards to voters.

The station was originally slated to close in 2014, yet the Liberals delayed closure until 2020. Now, Ford says he’ll keep it online until “at least 2024.” Meanwhile, the majority of the station’s 3,100 megawatt output is surplus and exported — at a loss — to the United States.

So if we don’t need Pickering’s power why would any government continue operating an outdated nuclear station the public doesn’t need?  

Hidden figures

The cost of running Pickering has been hidden from the public. In a report published just prior to the election, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe observed that no independent assessment has been completed showing Pickering’s continued operation makes fiscal sense.

While publicly claiming Pickering was a good deal for electricity consumers, the previous Liberal government also quietly exempted Pickering from independent review by the Ontario Energy Board. Nevertheless, Saxe found there was enough information in the public domain — such as the huge electricity surpluses created by Pickering — to question any extension of the plant’s lifespan.

“It is not clear,” she wrote, “whether the plan to extend operations at the Pickering station from 2020 to 2024 still makes sense.”

In line with this, the Environmental Commissioner made a fairly reasonable recommendation: the next government should transparently review the need for Pickering’s operation before granting its approval.   

But Ford, like his Liberal predecessors, has no interest in making government decisions on energy more transparent or accountable. Before even being sworn in as Premier, the Tory leader told a throng of cheering Pickering plant employees at photo-op staged outside of the plant that his government would protect “made-in Ontario jobs.”

To break this unhealthy cycle of using the energy file to reward voters, we need to acknowledge that the well-paying jobs created by the nuclear facility are also a prime political barrier to retiring the risky, costly and unnecessary nuclear station. Successfully closing Pickering now or in the future isn’t just about ensuring the province has adequate replacement power, but transitioning the approximately 3,000 workers in Durham Region whose jobs are tied to the plant to a post-nuclear reality.

Trouble from Pickering’s earliest days

Pickering was Ontario’s first multi-unit nuclear station. Despite going online in 1971, the plant was designed and built in the 1960s. And its near-50-year history is one of poor performance, cost overruns and mishaps.  

Just twelve years after the station went into operation a pressure tube ruptured in one of the four Pickering “A” reactors. It scared Ontario Hydro (the predecessor to Ontario Power Generation) so much that it spent the next decade rebuilding the four reactors.  

This repair work cost roughly $1 billion, more than the original capital cost of the station. Yet is also created thousands of well paying local jobs.

Ironically, the station’s history of technical woes increased employment. Every time something broke down the plant’s operator hired workers to fix it. In this way, Pickering created a local economy where workers have been paid to effectively dig holes and fill them in.

Despite having repaired the four malfunctioning Pickering “A” reactors, all were shut down again in 1997 due to poor performance and deteriorating safety. A new hole dug, Ontario Hydro pushed forward with an expensive plan to fill it back in by again repairing the beleaguered reactors.

However, this proved too costly to complete, forcing the permanent mothballing of two reactors in 2005. This left six operating reactors, though four Pickering “B” reactors were quickly approaching the end of their design life in 2014.

Pickering’s (eventual) closure

After years of study, the Liberal government announced in 2010 that the cost of rebuilding the Pickering “B” reactors was prohibitively expensive and the station would close. This was a perfect opportunity for the government to begin working with OPG, municipalities and workers to develop plans to ease the impacts of Pickering’s closure. They never did.

The following year was an election year, after all, so then Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his government would complete minor repairs to keep the plant operating until 2020. Then again, under Kathleen Wynne in 2016, the Liberals promised to extend Pickering’s life until 2024, an announcement that coincided with a by-election in Whitby—Oshawa that the Progressive Conservatives ultimately won.

But instead of working with the local community to develop a plan to lessen any impacts from the station’s closure, Wynne repeatedly used the looming threat of Pickering’s shutdown for short-term political gain, a move that Ford perfected during the 2018 election campaign by stoking fears of lost jobs.

There’s a lesson here. In mapping out our transition to a more sustainable and renewable energy system, we need to not only tout future benefits of the system we’re creating but ensure that provisions are made to transition communities reliant on old-style generating facilities to new realities.

Germany is providing an example of how this could work. The country established a coal-exit commission to map out how to support affected workers and communities, all while meeting its climate commitments and phasing out coal-fired generation. And in Canada, the federal government announced in April a Just Transition Task Force to help Canadian communities affected by the phase out of coal power.

We need plans and community buy-in for those blueprints we create to guide Pickering’s closure. But first we need all stakeholders — OPG, Queen’s Park, municipalities, unions — to acknowledge that the station will close in the very near future. And we must be ready for when that day comes.

If we don’t begin talking about this now, Ontario may be no more ready for Pickering’s closure before the next general election in 2022.

Shawn-Patrick Stensil is a senior energy analyst with Greenpeace Canada.


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