Latest News

Disaster plans miss the mark

Province not planning for major nuclear accidents, activists say

In the event of a nuclear incident, a series of response zones will be put in place for the Pickering Nuclear Station, left, and Darlington. The red circle represents the contingous zone within three kilometres of the plant, the blue represents the primary zone within 10 kilometres of the plant and the green represent the secondary zone within 50 km. Each of these zones would be face certain mitigation and safety measures in the event of a nuclear incident. (Graphic by Joel Wittnebel).

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The province is asking for the public’s feedback on the proposed version of its new nuclear preparedness plan – but for many activists, it’s not enough.

“These proposed changes do a disservice to Ontarians,” says Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a senior energy analyst with Greenpeace. “They affectively proposed not to strengthen public safety and they ignore key lessons from Fukushima.”

The proposed changes to Ontario’s Provincial Nuclear Emergency Response Plan (PNERP) would implement many new “international recommended practices” and, according to a news release, put lessons learned from previous international incidents and exercises into practice.

“The safety and security of the province is a top priority for our government. That is why we have developed a strong nuclear emergency response plan,” states Marie-France Lalonde, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, in a new release.

“Before it is finalized, we are inviting comments from citizens, experts and academics to ensure the plan addresses their concerns and priorities and keeps our families and communities safe.”

Nuclear safety and planning are part of a web of responsibilities spanning across all three levels of government. The province is responsible for the bulk of the high-level planning, as well as the coordination of off-site emergency planning in the event of a nuclear emergency. Meanwhile, the corresponding municipalities in which the nuclear plants reside are responsible for more in-depth planning, while the federal government is responsible for security at the power plants themselves.

The PNERP includes planning for five nuclear plants, two of which sit in Durham Region (Pickering and Darlington) with the others located in Kincardine (Bruce Power Generating Station), Laurentian Hills/Deep River (Chalk River Laboratories) and Monroe, Michigan (FERMI 2).

Among the proposed changes is the addition of a new contingency zone, adding another layer of planning further out from the nuclear power plant. The current plan has in place a contiguous zone, a primary zone and secondary zone moving out from the location of the accident, each with varying levels of emergency response.

The contiguous zone would be required in planning for both Pickering and Darlington, and would only be considered during severe incidents and require measures to guard residents against the ingestion of nuclear material.

However, Stensil says these changes do nothing to strengthen off-site emergency measures, and the scale of the planning only extends to accidents like that seen at Three Mile Island, a meltdown that occurred in Pennsylvania in 1979, and saw the evacuation of approximately 140,000 people, less than half of the population of the area. Stensil says the province needs to consider larger scale catastrophes such as the one seen in Fukushima, Japan. In that case, a tsunami triggered by a large earthquake struck the nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, disabling the power and cooling supply for the three reactors.

The disaster, which led to the deaths of 15,000 people (not all attributed to the meltdown) and the displacement of tens of thousands, some of whom have not been able to return to their homes, is an example of a significant planning gap. The nuclear reactors in Japan were very much prepared for the earthquake that struck that day, but not the tsunami that followed.

“Regulators and operators just couldn’t imagine that an accident that big could happen. Those human causes of Fukushima, those institutional causes aren’t mentioned anywhere in the discussion paper,” Stensil says. “The causes are human, and humans are the same everywhere so accidents can happen everywhere.”

For Stensil, it’s this reason the province should stop relying on studies showing the probability of major accidents as low.

“That goes against what we see in the real world,” he says. “We see major accidents about once every 10 years and yet the government still relies on industry risk studies that show ridiculously low probabilities. We can’t trust those studies.”

According to a survey commissioned by Durham Nuclear Awareness (DNA) of residents around the Darlington nuclear site, 86 per cent said they would want to see planning for a Fukushima-level nuclear disaster.

For Janet McNeill, DNA’s coordinator, things do not add up in the planning phase.

“We are aware that the nuclear industry takes the threat of a nuclear accident seriously. They do on-site drills for such emergencies five times per year. This indicates that while many want us to believe it can’t happen here, the nuclear industry is clearly well aware that in fact it could,” she says.

“We need to look over these proposed revisions and the call for public safety very carefully so we can provide detailed feedback that will ultimately enhance public protection for everyone who lives in Ontario.”

McNeill is also concerned there are no measures in place for protecting Lake Ontario.

“There is no sign of the kind of drinking water protection that needs to be in place, and given that Lake Ontario provides drinking water for millions of people, this is a very serious failing,” she says.

However, according to a further statement from Lalonde, the province is taking into account those major disasters during the process.

“As part of this ongoing review process, we are incorporating lessons learned from past nuclear emergencies such as Fukushima to ensure that we are using the most up-to-date and internationally acclaimed practices,” she states in a follow up response to The Oshawa Express. “Nuclear power is clean, cost-effective, and reliable – it helps us meet our energy needs, achieve our environmental goals, and supports 70,000 direct and indirect jobs for Ontarians. We are proud of our safety record and of the high safety standards and advanced technology at our nuclear facilities.”

As of May 15, the proposed changes are posted on the Regulatory Registry and Environmental Registry for 60 days to allow interested parties to review it and comment.

The province is also establishing a new advisory panel made up of national and international experts in the fields of nuclear safety and energy management to help review any responses to the plan and to provide recommendations on how to incorporate any changes into the plan.