Sierra Club of Canada Media Release


Sierra Club of Canada Backgrounder — June 3, 2003

The Pickering “A” Nuclear Generating Station was the first large-scale nuclear generating station built in Canada. The first two reactors at Pickering began commercial operation in 1971, with the other two units following in 1972 and 1973.The reactors are each 515 MW (net), a total of 2060 MW — less than 9% of Ontario’s peak electricity demand. All four reactors at the Pickering A station had to be re-built after a loss of coolant accident (LOCA) in August 1983. Ontario Hydro said the accident could never happen, but it did. It cost over $1 billion to fix, and the station was shut down in stages from 1983 to 1993.

On August 13, 1997, faced with the worst nuclear performance and safety problems in its history, Ontario Hydro announced that it would temporarily shut down the four Pickering A reactors and the three operating Bruce A reactors (one Bruce A reactor had already been shut down in 1995). It was the largest single nuclear shutdown in the international history of nuclear power — over 5000 megawatts of nuclear capacity. Ontario Hydro called for the “phased recovery” of its nuclear reactors, including “extensive upgrades” to the operating stations Pickering B, Bruce B and Darlington, before bringing the Pickering A and Bruce A reactors back into operation.

A controversial environmental assessment on the restart of the four Pickering A reactors was approved by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC — the federal nuclear regulator) in February 2001. The assessment deliberately excluded any review of economic issues, or cost comparisons of energy alternatives. The assessment also failed to deal with the possibility of a severe accident with radioactive fallout.

With the shutdown of the Pickering A and Bruce reactors since 1997, the overall nuclear power performance in Ontario has reached an all-time low. As a result, coal burning for replacement power has increased dramatically.

When the Pickering A reactors were first shut down at the end of 1997, the first reactor (Unit 4) was supposed to re-start in June 2000, with the remaining three to be restarted at six month intervals (to be completely operational by June 2002). A series of delays were subsequently announced, with extended periods of up to one year between restart of the four reactors. In its announcement of the Pickering review on May 30, 2003, the Ontario government revealed another delay, saying that reactor 4 will produce “significant power in July, and … full power in August”. No indication was given as to when the other three reactors would be restarted.

OPG originally estimated that the total cost for Pickering A refurbishment would be $800 million. In its Third Quarter Report for 2002 (October 2002), Ontario Power Generation revealed that the cost for Pickering A refurbishment had escalated to $1.025 billion, and that an additional $230 million would be needed to restart Unit 4 ($1.255 billion in total). However, at that time, OPG estimated that Unit 4 would be fully operational in March 2003, but that schedule has slipped to August, so presumably costs have increased. The Third Quarter Report for 2002 also suggests that the three additional reactors would cost $300 to $400 million each. Assuming a $1.2 billion cost, OPG’s total estimated cost for Pickering A refurbishment in October 2002 was $2.455 billion — three times the original cost estimate.

The four reactors at Pickering A have already been paid for three times. The initial construction, which began in 1964 resulted in commercial operation between 1971 and 1973 and cost $716 million in dollars of the year. The second payment for Pickering occurred from 1983 to 1993, after the disastrous pressure tube rupture of 1983, and cost about $1 billion. We are now paying for these lemon reactors a third time, which has cost at least $1.5 billion to date, and will cost at least $2.5 billion if the refurbishment plan is allowed to continue. Given the long history of cost overruns in the nuclear industry, this figure will certainly increase.

This money is being spent for an estimated ten additional years of operation. Despite the massive expenditure there is no guarantee that performance of the reactors will actually improve significantly. Prior to the August 1983 tube rupture at Pickering Unit 2, Pickering A’s performance was 86.8% Capacity Factor in 1982 (81% Capacity Factor lifetime). Capacity Factor is the percentage of perfect electrical output that was actually produced in a given time period. At time of the station shutdown in December 31, 1997, the station’s 1997 performance was 55.4% Capacity Factor (64.3% Capacity Factor lifetime). OPG’s cost/benefit analysis for the Pickering A re-start is based on the assumption that it can achieve an 86% Capacity Factor at the station after refurbishment. However, the best way to predict the future is to judge on the basis of the past. Based on past experience, a disastrous decline in performance can be expected despite the current round of massive expenditure on refurbishment.

An Outdated, Dangerous Prototype Nuclear Station

The Pickering A nuclear station was designed in the 1960’s as a four-reactor station to cut costs by sharing key safety systems such as containment and emergency core cooling. While shared safety systems cut costs, they also resulted in a loss of redundancy, thus increasing the risk of a serious accident. When the additional four reactors of the Pickering B nuclear station began operation between 1983 and 1986, containment and emergency core cooling were shared for all eight reactors, resulting in even greater risk.

The Pickering A nuclear station is particularly dangerous because it lacks second fast shutdown system, while all other power reactors in Canada have two systems. The single emergency shutdown system at the Pickering A station consists of shutoff rods that can be dropped into the reactor core. In 1977 the federal regulator required all reactors to have two separate fast shutdown systems, including the shutoff rod system and liquid ‘poison’ injection system, but excluded Pickering A from the requirement. This matter became particularly crucial after the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, when the regulator required that Ontario Hydro to examine the possibility of a dual mode failure, combining a loss of coolant accident with the failure of a safety system. Despite the creation of a new international standard, Pickering A was ignored. Although an enhanced monitoring system was retrofitted on the Pickering A reactors, Ontario Hydro was allowed to continue to them with only one emergency shutdown system. Continued operation of the aging reactors at Pickering is of particular concern because no other nuclear plant in the world is surrounded by as large a population as Pickering — about 2 million people within a 30 km radius. In the event of a catastrophic accident, it would be impossible to implement an effective emergency evacuation.


There are compelling economic and safety reasons why expenditure should be stopped NOW on the refurbishment of the Pickering A nuclear station. Unit 4 should not be restarted because of the absence of a second emergency shutdown system, and other safety problems associated with the aging reactor.

Despite the rebuilding of the Pickering A reactors after the pressure tube rupture in Unit 2 in 1983, performance declined to insupportable levels by the mid-1990s, eventually prompting the 1997 shutdown. A similar experience can expected after the current refurbishment. Ontario ratepayers have been punished enough for the high cost and poor performance of nuclear power. It is time to stop nuclear refurbishment and invest money instead in efficiency programs, renewable energy (particularly wind turbines), and in high-efficiency gas cogeneration. One billion dollars would have purchased 1000 megawatts of wind turbines. Although wind turbines function at a relatively low capacity factor because of wind availability, they are safer, cleaner, far more reliable and ultimately cheaper than nuclear power.