Lake Ontario Waterkeeper's purpose is to protect and celebrate Lake Ontario. We work for you, for the water, for fish and birds, communities and culture. In the past we have stood firm against Lafarge; held an American company accountable for pollution in Canada; and fought for navigation rights. This week as we begin the Darlington New Nuclear Power Plant hearing, we feel as though the ground has been pulled from beneath us. We struggle to bring you news from the hearing when the information is coming at us so quickly, when there is a nuclear tragedy unfolding in Japan, and when the hearing process itself is deeply, deeply flawed. We have opted to bring you a more personal take on the issue this week, written by our Vice President Krystyn Tully. This is a departure from our traditional newsletter format. We hope you understand.
I am a child of the Durham Region nuclear family. I was born and raised and schooled in Oshawa, smack-dab in the middle of the Pickering and Darlington nuclear power plants. My friends' parents worked in the nuclear industry when I was younger. My friends work there today.
I never wanted to talk about a "worst-case scenario" at a nuclear power plant.
I have dedicated my adult life to protecting and celebrating Lake Ontario, the defining, looming natural presence in the Oshawa community. I have dedicated much of the last two years of my career to researching the potential impacts of the new Darlington nuclear power plant on my lake. I studied about the impacts of cooling water on fish and fish habitat, the air emissions, the wastewater emissions, and the destruction of bird habitat that will be part of the normal operations of the new Darlington nuclear power plant.
I never wanted to talk about accidents, incidents, or anything "abnormal" that might happen at a nuclear power plant.
My friend Ava is also a child of Durham Region. She's a teacher and a farmer, and I have known her since high school. Ava lives in Japan.
Two weeks ago, an earthquake hit Japan. Then a tsunami hit. These natural disasters set in motion the largest nuclear crisis in our memory, as fires, pressure, leaks, and other problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant released contamination into the air and water for days on end. Ava is safe, but her community has been ripped apart by the trio of disasters.
Two days ago, I embarked on a three-week hearing to assess the environmental effects of the new Darlington nuclear power plant. Even as I sit in the hearing room at Hope Fellowship Church in Courtice, Ontario, Ava sends me regular updates from the other side of the world.
In Japan, whole communities have been evacuated, drinking water systems shut down, and food sources banned because of contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Ava reports:
“Today, I just found out that I cannot eat local leafy greens in my neighborhood. My friend's farm has been shut down indefinitely. We are no longer talking about food shortages for the newly homeless and victims of the tsunami, but also everyone else who happens to live in surrounding prefectures from the nuclear power plant. We are talking about millions of people whose lives have changed overnight!”
The widespread contamination is having a profound impact on her own community, which is about 170 kilometres from the nuclear power plant:
“Our little school has just learned that another teacher is leaving for good, and I am contemplating it too. That will leave only one core teacher left for next year. How can we teach when everyone is scared to death of eating local food, or getting enough gas to drive there, or getting stuck on a train when there are still rolling blackouts? Even if the "minor" contamination will pass, people are not so forgiving and the entire northern part of the country will be dealing with this devastation for years.”
I am overwhelmed by a heartbreaking montage of conflicting information. Ava's updates describe the dark side of nuclear power in gut-wrenching, all-too-real detail. Yet even as I read her messages, sitting in Courtice in my suit, Ontario Power Generation spokespeople are standing one after the other to promise that accidents will never happen here: Their plan is bullet-proof. Nothing will go wrong, because this is Canada.
I want them to be right. I want to believe that we have nothing to fear, that my friends and their parents are safe each day that they go off to work near the nuclear reactors.
I do not want to talk about accidents. I always thought the day-to-day environmental impacts of the Darlington New Nuclear Power Plant were bad enough. The new nuclear plant will kill as many as 46,000 fish and 28-million eggs and larvae per year. There's no detailed plan for preventing air pollution, wastewater pollution, or the destruction of up to 40 hectares of fish habitat. I know how important the lake is to south Durham Region, and I felt honoured to be able to bring scientific evidence to a formal hearing that would help the Ontario and Canadian governments better protect our waterfront.
I never wanted to talk about meltdowns. Until I watched one.
On the first day of the hearing, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (and others) asked the panel to reschedule the hearing until we had more information from Japan and more information from OPG about its reactors, cooling water system, and emissions.
I wholeheartedly believe that our official motion to reschedule the Darlington New Nuclear Power Plant hearing would give Canadians time to learn from the horrific events unfolding in Japan. I believe that, if millions of people’s lives were going to be permanently affected by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, the very, very least we can do on our side of the world is learn something from the tragedy.
On the first day of the hearing, the panel declared that there is "no need" for postponement.
I know that Ontario isn't particularly earthquake-prone, in comparison to Japan. And I know "Lake Ontario Tsunami" sounds more like a local punk band than a legitimate natural disaster. I also know that earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only events that can cause accidents or malfunctions. The Japanese crisis is a reminder that nuclear power plants have a very powerful dark side. Even on its best day, a nuclear power plant has an impact on air and water and the natural environment. If we are going to build more nuclear here, we must build it carefully, thoughtfully.
“We are learning by the hour of so many people, communities, industries and the entire country being affected by the nuclear disaster. I am so frustrated to know that Ontario is even considering moving ahead with more reactors! It's like a giant slap in Japan's face. I wish I could be there to speak up. I am so angry and frustrated and bewildered at people's ignorance when it's not in their own backyards.”
In light of what I hear from Japan, what I know about the impacts of the new Darlington Nuclear Power Plant, and what I have learned about due process and decision-making over the course of the last decade, I sit in the Courtice hearings, heartbroken.
This hearing is not good decision-making. There are no meaningful rules of evidence, no cross examination, and there are constant reminders to "hurry up" or "be mindful of the time.” There is no logical progression from one element of the complicated regulatory decisions to the next. There's very little true science, with all the important studies planned to be done "later.” As the vice president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, I have been part of other environmental assessments, other licencing hearings, private prosecutions, provincial court appeals, and the Walkerton Inquiry. As a student of public administration, I have a tremendous amount of respect for due process and transparent decision-making. This is not it.
Ontario Power Generation and nuclear industry spokespeople have said often that they pride themselves on their abilities to learn continuously and to evolve over time. With respect, there are some mistakes that we cannot afford to make, even once.
I feel almost embarrassed now, to talk about what I came to Courtice to talk about: fish kills, destruction of fish habitat, and localized air pollution. When I hear about the rare tragedy that Ava and her friends and colleagues are experiencing in Japan, my first instinct is to stop. To watch. To help if possible. To learn.