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Inside the Pickering Nuclear Power Station near Toronto on April 17, 2019.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Ontario’s plan to add at least a year to the life of one of its aging nuclear power plants east of Toronto is too expensive and too risky, critics say, and shows the government has failed to plan for the province’s energy needs.

Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith said Thursday that Ontario Power Generation, the government-owned utility that runs the Pickering nuclear power station, would ask the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for permission to operate it until September, 2026, helping the province weather that summer’s peak demand. It had been set to close by 2025.

He also said OPG would update its feasibility studies on whether to spend billions on a refurbishment that could see the plant’s newest four reactors, which date from the mid-1980s, operate for another 30 years.

Ontario to extend life of Pickering nuclear plant until 2026

Flanked by about 200 of the plant’s workers, Mr. Smith said extending Pickering’s life by just a year would reduce carbon emissions by 2.1 million tonnes, the equivalent of taking 640,000 cars off the road.

“Our government has been and will continue to be a steadfast supporter of nuclear energy,” Mr. Smith said.

The move was welcomed by power-worker unions and the environmental group Canadians for Nuclear Energy, which has been pushing for the extension of Pickering to reduce emissions.

But opposition politicians and critics of nuclear power seized on the announcement, saying it showed the government was scrambling to meet growing energy demands. Some warned that extending the life of the aging nuclear plant, which first opened in 1971 and supplies around 15 per cent of the province’s power, would cost too much and increase the risk of a mishap.

Just last month, Mr. Smith had said there were no plans to extend Pickering to deal with the energy crunch now facing the Progressive Conservative government, which critics point out cancelled a long list of wind and solar projects commissioned under the previous Liberals when the PCs came into office in 2018.

Environmentalists have long criticized the province’s plans to ramp up reliance on greenhouse-gas emitting natural gas as its other nuclear reactors are shut down for massive refurbishment projects.

Mr. Smith has asked the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator to study the feasibility of a moratorium on natural-gas generation. But last month it announced four new natural-gas energy contracts. (Currently, more than 90 per cent of the province’s power is produced by zero-emissions sources such as nuclear, which accounts for about 60 per cent, hydroelectric, wind and solar.)

“Premier Doug Ford failed to plan for Ontario’s energy needs and that’s put the province in a bind,” interim Opposition NDP Leader Peter Tabuns, a former head of Greenpeace Canada and a long-time critic of nuclear power, said in a press release, calling for a new transparent energy plan for the province.

Liberal MPP Ted Hsu, his party’s energy critic, said it was “extremely concerning” that the province was depending on the nuclear regulator’s okay of the Pickering extension to avoid “brownouts” as Ontario’s energy supply is tested in the coming years.

“It’s clear that Doug Ford failed to plan accordingly for the [Pickering] shutdown and is now scrambling with a Hail Mary pass to make up for his mistakes,” Mr. Hsu said.

On Thursday, Mr. Smith defended the government’s 2018 cancellation of the green energy contracts, which cost at least $200-million, saying they were overpriced deals for “intermittent, unreliable” power and that killing them saved ratepayers money. He said extending the Pickering plant’s life would allow the province to get other power sources, including battery storage for renewable energy, up and running.

Mr. Ford had previously extended the life of the Pickering plant once, after he was elected in 2018.

Shawn-Patrick Stensil, program director at Greenpeace Canada, said despite the nuclear industry assurances to the contrary, an accident is possible with this kind of reactor, which is now surrounded by a much larger population than it was built on Toronto’s outskirts in 1971.

He urged the government to look at the conclusions OPG came to under the Liberals when it rejected plans to refurbish the plant in 2009, a proposal estimated then to cost $10.7-billion.

A 2009 internal Ministry of Energy briefing note, which Greenpeace obtained through freedom of information legislation, warns that Pickering would be more expensive than other nuclear plants to operate because of the need for “increased maintenance and inspections.” The memo also warned there was a “significant risk of less than optimal performance postrefurbishment” and that there was a ”high potential for discovery of defects which could make refurbishment unfeasible.”

Mr. Stensil said instead of studying the refurbishment of Pickering, the government should be ramping up renewable energy: “They are kicking the can down the road yet again, and it puts our energy security at risk.”

Asked about the cost of extending Pickering’s operation to September, 2026, OPG chief executive officer Ken Hartwick said it would be a “net-positive” for ratepayers if the plant is kept open for that extra year, as the price for its maintenance has already been paid for.

He also said the aging plant was safe: “The starting point on safety is no one at OPG will operate a plant that isn’t safe, nuclear or otherwise.”

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