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Intermediate level waste is stored in these structures. Image: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s Nuclear Province Isn’t Ready for Its Fukushima, Critics Say

Kate Lunau

Kate Lunau

Ontario has launched a public consultation on its nuclear emergency plan.

Intermediate level waste is stored in these structures. Image: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On Thursday, over 40 groups—representing nurses, environmentalists, and farmers—released a statement saying Ontario isn't ready for a large-scale nuclear emergency, even though half of the province's population lives near a nuclear plant. This week, Ontario launched a 60-day public consultation to update its nuclear emergency plan in the event of a catastrophe, the first time it's opened it up to the public like this.

"An accident on the scale of Fukushima needs to be planned for," Theresa McClenaghan, Executive Director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), told me over the phone. "When you look at the history of nuclear accidents around the world, we're seeing a significant [one] approximately every 10 years." Canada, she noted, is not immune.

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The province of Ontario coordinates nuclear emergency planning. "Nuclear power has been the backbone of Ontario's electricity supply for over 40 years, and we are proud that our CANDU reactors have an impeccable safety record," said a spokesperson for the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) in an email to Motherboard.

The Provincial Nuclear Emergency Response Plan (PNERP) has never been activated, but is reviewed every four years, the spokesperson noted, and it was last updated in 2009.

Even so, after the Fukushima disaster, people within 10 kilometres of nuclear plants were sent anti-radiation pills in the mail, and are now required to have them on-hand by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. In a recent documentary on nuclear power, Motherboard interviewed locals around the plant. "We received the potassium iodide pills, and I did tell [my wife] Pina we had to remember where they are," David Wysocki said.

Yet the couple hadn't fully discussed what would happen in the event of a nuclear emergency. Wysocki noted that his wife is vision-impaired, which might make it difficult for her to access the pills if she were home alone at the time of such an event.

Ontario is re-upping its investment in nuclear energy, partly to wean off fossil fuels (it phased out coal in 2014). The province now gets about 60 percent of its power from nuclear energy. Two of its three operating plants, the Darlington and Pickering Nuclear Generating Stations, are within an hour's drive of Toronto. That's a big concern to McClenaghan and others.

The 40-plus groups who've signed onto this statement, including Greenpeace and the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, say that current emergency plans don't sufficiently account for evacuations that would be required to get people out of the Toronto area in the event of a major nuclear accident. Nor do they note alternative water sources if our drinking water were affected. (All three of Ontario's nuclear facilities are on the shores of the Great Lakes.) Finally, emergency plans need to take better account of vulnerable populations in hospitals or long-term care facilities, these groups say.

Read More: The Plan to Build a Million-Year Nuclear Waste Dump on the Great Lakes

The nurses' association believes its members should have training to help people in the event of a nuclear disaster. Nurses "must learn to identify vulnerable populations in the shadow of nuclear plants," Kerrie Pickering of RNAO said in a statement provided to Motherboard.

"When the disaster at Fukushima occurred," Pickering's statement noted, "nurses were afraid to come to the hospital or long-term care homes where they worked because they did not know if they were in danger. Training will reduce this problem."

"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," the spokesperson for the ministry said.

Nuclear power was largely reviled by environmentalists in the '80s and '90s, but now, a growing number are coming around to it because we need to do something to curb our greenhouse gas emissions before it's too late. (CELA is calling for the phase-out of nuclear power, McClenaghan told me, but not all of the statement's signatories are against nuclear.)

"Regardless of where you stand on nuclear power, you have to agree we need very high levels of nuclear emergency planning, which we don't have," she said.

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