The Ontario government will announce Tuesday that it wants to refurbish the half-century old Pickering nuclear generating station, potentially keeping the plant operating for another 30 years, CBC News has learned.
The announcement comes as demand for electricity in Ontario is forecast to increase sharply over the coming decades. Meanwhile, all provinces face federal clean electricity regulations that would require future power plants to produce net-zero carbon emissions.
Energy Minister Todd Smith will announce the Ford government’s support of Ontario’s Power Generation’s plan to refurbish the power plant, according to an advance copy of a provincial news release provided to CBC News.
The four nuclear units that would be refurbished are all Candu reactors that date back to the early 1980s, collectively known as Pickering B. The refurbishment would supply 2,000 megawatts of power, comparable to the current output of those existing units.
The news release says the refurbishment will take 11 years, create about 11,000 jobs per year and increase Ontario’s GDP by $19.4 billion, but it does not state the project’s total budget.
A similar refurbishment of four units at the nearby Darlington nuclear station is more than midway through completion, on a total budget of $12.8 billion.
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The plan is subject to approval by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
The commission is already considering a previous OPG request to extend the operating licence of Pickering B’s existing units until 2026. That timeframe would allow the plant to keep generating electricity until it gets shut down to begin the refurbishment, if approved.
Ontario’s big nuclear plans
The Pickering announcement is just the latest in Ontario’s plans for what is poised to be Canada’s biggest-ever expansion of nuclear power.
Last summer, the province announced it wants to nearly double production at Bruce Power, already the largest nuclear generating station in the world.
Also last summer, Ontario unveiled plans to add three more small modular reactors (SMRs) to the one already in the works at Darlington, which would collectively provide enough electricity to power 1.2 million homes.
The province has been considering a Pickering refurbishment since 2022. Ontario Power Generation submitted its feasibility study to the government last summer.
The Ford government says the nuclear expansion is needed because the auto sector’s looming transition to electric vehicles, the steel industry’s planned shift away from coal-fired furnaces, and Ontario’s growing population will all combine to create a gap between the projected demand for electricity and the available supply.
Ontario’s ability to attract big international automakers — including Volkswagen and Stellantis — to manufacture electric vehicles and EV batteries in the province is due in part to the fact that 90 per cent of the province’s electricity is generated by non-fossil fuel sources.
“With global business looking to expand in jurisdictions with reliable, affordable and clean electricity, a refurbished Pickering nuclear generating station would help Ontario compete for and land more game-changing investments,” Smith said in the news release.
Nuclear plants currently supply slightly more than half of Ontario’s electricity needs. Hydro dams provide one-quarter of the supply, with gas-fired power plants and wind farms combining for all but a fraction of the remainder.
A provincial official says an estimate for the total cost of the Pickering refurbishment will be provided after the year-long initiation phase, including engineering and design work, is complete.
OPG’s budget for this first phase is $2 billion, to be financed by taking on debt paid off through revenue from ratepayers once the project is generating power, said the provincial official.
Chris Keefer, a Toronto emergency physician who is president of Canadians For Nuclear Energy, says not refurbishing Pickering would be harmful to the environment because the electricity to replace it would come from gas-fired plants.
“I’m ecstatic, I think this [refurbishment] is a really important move for the province,” Keefer said in an interview. “This is a big win on climate. It’s a big win on air quality.”
At the same time as Ontario looks to expand its nuclear power production, there are also plans in the works for expanding gas plants in various locations around the province, including Toronto, Brampton and Napanee.
Pickering B’s capacity is comparable to that of OPG’s hydro facilities on the Niagara River. “It’s an extraordinary amount of electricity to replace,” Keefer said.