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Energy minister urges Ottawa to ensure Ontario nuclear plants are safe

Photo dated Dec. 18, 1952. Original Caption: Tracking down Radiation -- A team of white-clad specialists from the Royal Canadian Engineers are shown here on the job at Chalk River helping to locate excessive radiation which escaped from the reactor at Canada's big Atomic Energy Plant. Left to Right are Sgt. G.E. Green, Regina; Spr. D.A. Miller, Cornwall, Ont.; Spr. T.B. Gorman, Halifax and Cpl. F.D. MacKenzie, Kentville, N.S.

The Canadian Press from National Defence/The Canadian Press from National Defence

Ontario's energy minister has asked the federal government to weigh the atomic crisis in Japan and make any necessary changes to the environment review of a proposed nuclear plant expansion on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Energy Minister Brad Duguid sent a letter to Ottawa on Friday, urging the government to ensure events at a crippled nuclear station in earthquake-ravaged Japan are examined when a regulatory hearing on the Darlington plant expansion begins Monday.

He has also asked Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation, which run the province's three nuclear plants, to examine what's happening in Japan and identify lessons that could be applied in the province.

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Still, Mr. Duguid remains steadfastly supportive of nuclear energy and said he has no plans to stall the province's expansion ambitions.

"I don't see anything that would be accomplished by doing that, other than trying to achieve political ends for those that are trying to exploit the events that are going on in Japan right now," he said.

The McGuinty government is banking on nuclear energy to fuel a large portion of the province's electricity grid, as it moves away from coal-fired power plants. In a 20-year plan released last year, the province committed to spending $33-billion on nuclear infrastructure, including two new reactors at the Darlington station in Clarington, Ont., about 80 kilometres east of Toronto.

Those proposed reactors will be the subject of a contentious three-week regulatory hearing that begins Monday at a church in a community near the Darlington plant. Opposition to Ontario's nuclear expansion is nothing new, but the unfolding atomic crisis in Japan has amplified the debate.

Nuclear opponents, environmental groups and even nurses want a time out on Ontario's planned nuclear growth. Several motions requesting the federal regulator to suspend the Darlington hearing are expected Monday.

While some critics of nuclear energy want the hearing postponed indefinitely, the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper group intends to ask for a six-month delay to assess the fallout from Japan's nuclear incident. The group is also seeking details on the type of reactors that will be built at the Darlington station.

"We see the Darlington nuclear power plant environmental assessment as one of the most important hearing processes Canada has ever initiated into nuclear power," said Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

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"The crisis in Japan underscored the importance of more detailed planning. There are lessons to be learned."

Ontario's experience with atomic energy runs long and deep, stretching back to the 1940s. The province is considered the birthplace of many nuclear safety advancements after experiencing the world's first major nuclear accident at the Chalk River site in 1952.

Jeremy Whitlock, past president of the Canadian Nuclear Society, said a combination of mechanical failure and human error led to a power surge and fuel failure in the research facility's reactor. The reactor's core was severely damaged, resulting in the release of contaminants.

"When that happened, that woke a lot of people up," Dr. Whitlock said. "After 1952, safety became a culture aspect. It wasn't just a technical thing."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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