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OPG said the extension at the station, seen here Jan. 12, 2020, which was the subject of a false emergency alert on the weekend, would be 'both good for our business and the people of Ontario.'Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s government has said it supports a proposal by Ontario Power Generation to operate its aging Pickering Nuclear Generating Station beyond its planned closing in 2024, but OPG this week declined to answer questions about how much that would cost and what it would entail.

Officials said the proposal, which has not been made public, is to operate four of the station’s six functioning reactors one year beyond their scheduled shutdown dates. That would allow the reactors to be taken offline sequentially rather than simultaneously. OPG said the extension at the station, which was the subject of a false emergency alert on the weekend, would be “both good for our business and the people of Ontario.” OPG is a Crown corporation that produces about half of the province’s electricity.

The reactors were originally scheduled to be retired in 2014. A decade ago, OPG decided to invest $300-million to extend their service life, but opted not to refurbish them.

Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan said he learned of the prospect of an extension at the plant a few weeks ago, when he bumped into Randy Lockwood, OPG’s senior vice-president responsible for Pickering’s operations, at a community event. Mr. Ryan said he was told that, optimally, the wind-down would extend into 2025.

“I’m totally comfortable with it,” Mr. Ryan said. “It’s been a good neighbour and a good employer, and I see no reason why that’s going to change over 12 months.” Mr. Lockwood is expected to attend a Pickering city council meeting on Jan. 27, where Mr. Ryan said there will be questions about the decades-long timeline for dismantling the plant.

Energy Minister Greg Rickford said in an interview this week that OPG’s proposal “looks reasonable” but said it will require community consultations in Pickering and approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), the federal body that regulates nuclear power plants. "We have no concerns about safety now and moving into the future,” he said.

OPG’s licence stipulates the facility must cease commercial operations by Dec. 31, 2024. Its reactors are to be defuelled and dewatered during the next three years, after which the station would be gradually decommissioned over several decades. The CNSC said it has not received an application from OPG to extend operations.

OPG declined to answer questions from The Globe and Mail about what additional measures might be required to keep the plant operating safely and reliably beyond the current closing date, or how much they would cost.

“It’s going to cost them something to extend it," said energy policy lawyer Mike Richmond, a former counsel to the Ontario PC party who was an adviser in Mike Harris’s government. He also wondered what that cost would be compared with the price to decommission the plant as scheduled.

The Pickering station, Canada’s oldest commercial nuclear generation facility, opened in 1971 on the north shore of Lake Ontario just east of Toronto. In its early years, the facility operated as two distinct stations: Pickering A (which housed the original four units) and Pickering B (four reactors that entered service in the 1980s). Two reactors have been mothballed since 1997; six remain in service.

Former premier Kathleen Wynne supported OPG’s plan to extend the facility’s operating life to 2024. Campaigning in 2018, Premier Doug Ford also vowed to keep the plant open until 2024, because he said it would reduce electricity bills and protect jobs in the Durham Region. (About 3,000 people work at the plant.)

Last year, the Pickering station produced 16 per cent of all electricity generated in Ontario. The government said this week the additional electricity the station would generate in 2025 was not part of OPG’s rationale for extending its operating life. However, the Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages Ontario’s power system, said the extension would help meet the province’s electricity needs.

“Ontario would still have a need for electricity capacity in 2023 and beyond,” said IESO spokesman John Cannella, “although the need would be smaller with an extension of Pickering and would be expected to be met by existing and available resources.”

Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a program director with Greenpeace, said OPG’s proposal reflects its failure to properly plan for the facility’s closing. “This could have been avoided,” he said. “This is an outdated design that wouldn’t be approved today. The plant should be shut down.”

On Sunday, the province erroneously issued an emergency alert about an unspecified “incident” at the Pickering station. Mr. Ryan said he received a call within minutes from the city’s fire chief, who said the plant assured him the alert was a mistake. The false alert, which is under investigation, prompted 43,000 orders within three days for free potassium iodide pills, which can be swallowed to protect the thyroid from exposure to radiation during a nuclear emergency.

With a report from Laura Stone

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