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The control room inside the Pickering Nuclear Power Generating Station on April 17, 2019. The plans to keep the plant, which opened east of Toronto in 1971, functioning until 2026 must still be approved by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Ontario will unveil plans on Thursday to extend the life of its nuclear power plant in Pickering for an extra year, running it until September, 2026, while launching a study on whether to spend billions refurbishing the aging facility.

Two sources familiar with the government’s decision told The Globe and Mail that Energy Minister Todd Smith will unveil the extension of the plant’s life on Thursday morning. He will also announce plans for Crown corporation Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which owns the plant, to study the feasibility of refurbishing four of its six functioning reactors in order to extend their lives by decades. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

The plans to keep the plant, which opened east of Toronto in 1971, functioning until 2026 must still be approved by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The study of the proposed longer-term revival of the power station is expected to take a year. If the refurbishment went ahead, it could take 10 years and cost as much as $10-billion. Pickering currently provides 14 per cent of the province’s electricity.

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The move to keep the station open for another year is taking place as Ontario faces a power crunch, with Pickering and its other nuclear stations either retiring or shutting down for refurbishments.

Critics have urged the province not to rely completely on natural-gas plants to fill the gap, as this would produce more greenhouse-gas emissions. The province’s power currently comes from 94 per cent zero-emission sources, mainly hydro and nuclear. Wind power accounted for 8 per cent. The Progressive Conservative government cancelled a long list of wind and solar-energy projects after it was first elected in 2018.

Last month, Mr. Smith had said there were no plans to extend the plant’s life. But he has also asked the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator to report by next month on the feasibility of a moratorium on new natural-gas-fuelled generation. The IESO recently announced four new contracts for natural-gas plants.

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Ontario Power Generation's Darlington plant, seen in 2003, is in the middle of a 10-year, $12.8-billion refurbishment.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Experts also warn that new demand for power, including from electric cars, will strain Ontario’s grid in decades to come.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford had extended the life of the Pickering plant, the country’s oldest commercial nuclear power station, for an extra year when it was previously scheduled to close by 2024.

Originally, the reactors were scheduled to be retired in 2014. But more than a decade ago, OPG decided to invest $300-million to extend their service life. However, it opted then not to refurbish them, although it had conducted an environmental assessment on that idea.

OPG’s nearby Darlington plant is in the middle of a 10-year, $12.8-billion refurbishment. Bruce Power’s massive nuclear plant near Kincardine, on the shores of Lake Huron, is also in the midst of a major renovation. Both are putting pressure on Ontario’s power supply.

The provincial government has faced pressure to keep Pickering open from the advocacy group Canadians for Nuclear Energy, as well as power-worker unions.

The move was expected to face criticism from some environmentalists and critics of nuclear power, who warn it is too costly and produces dangerous radioactive waste.

While Pickering came into service five decades ago, only two of those original four reactors (known as Pickering A) are still operating. Another four reactors at the site (known as Pickering B) came online later, in the 1980s. The two oldest reactors are still set to shut down in 2024, while the remaining four could operate until 2026. The plant employs about 3,000 people.

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