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In Fukushima's wake, Canadian nuclear plants prepare for the worst

The control room for the reactor side of the Darlington Nuclear Station operations. Unit 1 was down for planned maintenance. Photos taken April 6 2011 during a media tour of the Ontario Power Generation's Darlington Nuclear facility near Oshawa, Ont.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada's nuclear operators are taking extra steps to make plants safe in response to the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe - the first admission that, despite assurances Canada's nuclear facilities aren't vulnerable to that kind of meltdown, Japan's Chernobyl-scale disaster is forcing them to re-evaluate how the industry prepares for emergencies.

In the weeks after the nuclear plant in Japan was damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission asked all operators to review their safety and emergency procedures. Their responses, due last week, assure the national regulator and the public that Canada's plants are safe. But they also set out plans to make them safer - an indication of a renewed urgency in preparing for the worst-case emergencies, no matter how farfetched.

"It's getting back into more defence, more redundancies, backups. That's where we're going with this," said Wayne Robbins, chief nuclear officer of Ontario Power Generation.

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The provincial operator, which hopes to build a pair of new reactors at its Darlington site east of Toronto, is accelerating a system designed to prevent the kind of hydrogen buildups that caused Fukushima's initial explosion. At the same time, they're exploring new safety measures for spent fuel pools, where power outages and drops in water levels made spent uranium a source of dangerous radiation at Fukushima.

"Do we go even further? … What should we change here what would make these even more safe?" Mr. Robbins said.

New Brunswick Power is doing the same, as well as re-evaluating the risk of flooding, and setting up a system for staff to check temperatures and water levels in spent fuel bays.

Bruce Power hasn't yet submitted its report, which spokesman Steve Cannon said is coming later this summer, but the company is reviewing similar initiatives to beef up safety precautions.

"I think the events in Japan say you have to take a step back and say, 'Is it enough? Let's take even the unimaginable things and imagine them.' … Nothing is off the books."

But Mr. Robbins wants to underscore further: Lake Ontario isn't the Pacific Ocean, and OPG's Pickering and Darlington aren't Fukushima.

"We are in a different area. I just want to emphasize that again. We are in a different area than Japan. Having a nine-magnitude earthquake and a 15-metre tsunami is very, very low probability that will never happen in Ontario."

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That's not the point, says former Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen.

"You're defending against yesterday's problem," she said. The takeaway from Fukushima, she said, is not that nuclear plants should beware tsunamis: It's that they should be much more risk averse, preparing for even the most improbable emergencies - what Ms. Keen calls the "black swans" of nuclear safety.

"The response of the industry after Fukushima was very much, "Well, it can't happen here.' … Tell us what you're doing, what the modern standards are and tell us what the margin [of risk]is," she said.

Of particular concern is the adequacy of backup power systems, which in some Canadian plants are outnumbered by the reactors they're expected to support, and aging plants. Like Fukushima, many of Canada's facilities are decades old. Some experts and industry executives have mused that operators will have to shorten the lifespan of aging plants for safety reasons - or do a better job of justifying costly refurbishments.

"The industry is spooked by these developments in Japan, and they know they're going to be forced to demonstrate higher safety standards," said industry analyst Tom Adams.

"I think they are sensing the direction they're going to be forced to go down, whether they initiate it or not."

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