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The large domed building is the Vacuum Building which is designed to suck any radioactive steam that could be released. to date, this has not been needed. Photos taken April6 2011 during a media tour of the Ontario Power Generation's Darlington Nuclear facility near Oshawa, Ont. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The large domed building is the Vacuum Building which is designed to suck any radioactive steam that could be released. to date, this has not been needed. Photos taken April6 2011 during a media tour of the Ontario Power Generation's Darlington Nuclear facility near Oshawa, Ont. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Fukushima's ripple effects on nuclear power in Canada Add to ...

"I think [regulators]were just sanguine. I think they were complacent. And I think they thought that everything was in place," she said. "Hopefully they'll learn from it and do a better job next time."

Emergency preparedness

Operators in Canada argue that the scale of Japan's massive quake and devastating tsunami is unlikely on our own shores. But fears have arisen from the Japanese crisis and may force operators to prepare for extreme forms of devastation.

Twenty-five-year-old Darlington is built to withstand a 7.0-magnitude quake, for example, but a 9.0 quake on a Fukushima scale could do serious damage.

In case of an emergency, Darlington's double-shutdown system is designed to ensure the entire plant shuts down within seconds. But it would still need power to keep fuel rods from overheating, as is happening at Fukushima.

If Darlington's main power supply is cut off, it has standby, emergency and auxiliary generators. The emergency generators can last for seven days before running out of fuel. Whether that's enough depends on how big a disaster they're preparing for.

Ten days after the earthquake and tsunami, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission asked all operators to review those emergency procedures. Operators will submit their reviews this month; the nuclear safety commission is still drafting terms of reference for the kinds of recommendations that will come of its evaluation.

Operators won't say revamped emergency plans could prepare for more extreme contingencies: What if more emergency power is needed? What if a natural disaster causes more structural damage than expected? What if backup plans fail?

"There'll inevitably be some sort of changes to the emergency planning arrangements," said Bruce Power president Duncan Hawthorne. "There'll be more rehearsal."

In the event of an emergency, it's up to provinces to plan for the communities surrounding nuclear plants. In Ontario's case, the procedure includes informing the public through sirens and auto-dialling of residential land lines, as well as provisions for setting up mobile radiation detection stations. The sirens were declared operational in January.

But Ontario's plan assumes an evacuation radius of 10 kilometres. In Fukushima's case, residents living 20 kilometres away were evacuated. International observers argued unsafe radiation levels had penetrated almost twice that radius, and the country is considering increasing the distance.

For Canada's busiest highway, the outcome may be anarchic. "You know how bad the 401 gets," Ms. Keen said, referring to the crowded east-west highway. "Can you imagine if you tried to evacuate the whole Pickering area like they did in Fukushima, 20 or 30 kilometres, what that would look like?"

Plant design

It may not change much, but if it does, it'll be pricey.

For many, the obvious question arising from Fukushima's aftermath is whether the reactors being used and designed in Canada have enough precautions built in. If Canada opts for higher-tech, super-safe plants, or if it replaces old ones sooner, it will make an already capital-intensive industry more expensive.

Canadian operators stress the differences between the Japanese reactors and their own. Made-in-Canada CANDU reactors come equipped with steel-and-cement cylindrical structures maintained during normal operations as a vacuum. In an emergency, they provide an emergency outlet and controlled filter for radioactive gases.

CANDU reactors also add an extra step in the turbine-powering process, using heavy water heated by nuclear fuel to create steam in a separate vessel.

"But these are not crucial points in regard to the potential for releasing radioactive material," said Gordon Thompson, executive director of Cambridge, Mass.-based Institute for Security and Resource Studies. "That potential derives from a couple of things that are in common between the Canadian and the Japanese plants."

In both cases, the reactor's fuel needs to be kept cool. Fukushima's fuel rods started to spew radiation when power failed and cooling stopped. If emergency power failed or emergency fuel ran out, the same could happen at a CANDU plant.

Both types of reactors surround their fuel pallets with zirconium metal. When intensely hot, it interacts with steam to create a buildup of hydrogen gas like the one that caused Fukushima's explosion in early March.

The wider criticism is that Canada's reactors, like Fukushima's, are old and therefore more vulnerable



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