What if there was an incident at the Pickering nuclear plant? Should WNY worry?

Jan 21, 2020

Two weekends ago, a false alarm was sent to Canadians living within 10 kilometers of the Pickering, Ontario nuclear power generation station, advising of an "incident" on the plant grounds. There was no such incident and officials say the message was inadvertently sent to the public. But what if there ever were a real incident at the plant? It's closer to Western New York than many may realize.

The first alert sent to residents stated there was an incident at the Pickering plant but no abnormal release of radioactivity had occurred. A second message then informed the public that the first message was a mistake.

A red line traces from Pickering, Ontario in the north to Youngstown, New York, approximately 35 miles due south. If weather conditions were favorable, fallout from an accidental release of radiation from Pickering's nuclear power generation station could potentially pose a hazard to parts of Western New York.
Credit Google Maps

Among those receiving the first alert was the dispatch hub of Niagara County's Emergency Management.

"In the past, they do exercises and trainings that we've been involved with and do notify our 911 center," said Jonathan Schultz, Director of Emergency Services and Fire Coordinator. "They reach out and we've got a call-down tree from there that notifies proper parties, so we know what's going on in the event of an emergency. We make sure that call-down tree works and we're all set to go."

The Pickering plant, despite its recent false alarm, has not had any major safety violations. The International Atomic Energy Agency inspected the plant in 2016 and followed up two years later, giving the facility generally good marks. (A link to the report may be found at the bottom of the page linked here.) It's an aging facility, though, and the Ontario government had planned to close it in 2024. The Toronto Star reported last week, however, that Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet have moved to extend its operation beyond 2024, through at least 2025.

Pickering is located about 23 miles east of Toronto. It is also approximately 35 miles due north of Youngstown, New York. If there were some sort of accident which released radiation into the air and water, and if the winds were blowing just right and were strong enough, fallout could head in the direction of Western New York.

Misa Yasumiishi is a doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo studying how Geographic Information Systems could assist the public in cases of disaster. Her family was directly affected by the tsunami which, following an earthquake, damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, releasing radiation into the air and ocean.

"In Japan, after the accident, about a 30-kilometer radius from the plant was evacuated," she recalled. "If you think about that, the distance between Canada and Buffalo is not too far."

An estimated 100,000 people were evacuated following the Fukushima incident and, according to the World Nuclear Association, no cases of death or radiation sickness have been traced directly to the radiation release. However, radiation had been detected beyond a 50-mile radius of the plant. Furthermore, Japanese officials reported later in 2011 that levels of iodine-131 deemed above "safe levels for infants" had been detected in five Tokyo-area water treatment facilities.

"We're fortunate for where we are, outside that 10-mile zone, that initial evacuation zone in the main trouble spot for any type of nuclear plant," said Schultz. "We're at that distance where we're more about fallout and things like that."

How much of a risk a radiation discharge would pose to Western New York depends to a degree how much has been released. The wind direction and speed would also determine the level of risk.

"That volume, if it's in the air, then it's going to spread out like kind of a bubble," said Michael Wood, professor and chair of the Physics Department at Canisius College. "The further away you go, then the amount you would have received would go down by the distance squared."

Following a 1984 industrial gas leak in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 3,000 people, federal legislation required the formation of Local Emergency Planning Committees. Niagara County officials include large-scale disaster scenarios in their training and, in 2016, put it to use when responding to a massive fire at a Lockport tire recycling facility. The response included evacuations of some residents and shelter-in-place orders for others. In the event of a nuclear plant accident in Pickering, Niagara County officials do not anticipate a need for immediate evacuation but shelter-in-place orders would certainly be issued.

Elise Pignatora directs public health planning and emergency preparedness for the Niagara County Health Department and says residents would be advised to get to an innermost part of their homes, preferably a basement, and stay there for at least 24 hours while awaiting further instructions from authorities. She recommends people prepare emergency kits including bottled water, non-perishable foods and a battery-powered or crank-powered radio.

"While we are doing sampling and monitoring of our environment, be that the soil or water, we will inform the public, potentially, to not drink water out of the public system," Pignatora said. "Water would be safe for you to wash your body and remove your clothing, like we would instruct, but we would advise individuals not to drink the public water supply."

County officials also recommend avoiding reliance on social media, where misinformation may spread, and instead follow broadcast instructions or get it from smartphone apps such as ReadyNiagara. Erie County has a similar disaster preparedness app.

How radiation would spread and dissipate in Lake Ontario, Wood says, is harder to forecast. With currents, he explained, "there's no rule of thumb." There would also be the problem of cleaning up contamination on the ground surface. Radioactive materials have half-lives, the amount of time needed for one-half of the atoms in the material to disintegrate. Depending on the material, a half-life could be seconds, or many years.

"Some half-lives, (for example) Thorium, could last thousands of years," Wood said. "There isn't much we could really do except dig it up, put it into containment and essentially bury it into the ground and wait for it to naturally decay away into something more stable, if radioactive anymore."