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Lack of skilled workers identified as risk in Pickering nuclear plant refurbishment timeline, documents show

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It could take at least 11 years to complete the refurbishment of the Pickering nuclear plant, according to documents prepared by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), however a lack of skilled workers and potential scope adjustments could impact the project.

The Pickering Units 5-8 Feasibility Assessment Final Report, obtained by CTV News Toronto via Freedom of Information request, suggests the refurbishment of the plant is “both economic and technically feasible.”

However it also identifies a lack of skilled workers in Ontario as one of its greatest weaknesses, along with technical complexity of the project.

“Both OPG and external industry forecasts of skilled trades demand show that the availability of boilermakers, licensed asbestos insulators, and tunnelling expertise from labourers will be high-risk areas that require special attention,” the report suggests.

“High levels of attrition across all trades contribute to increased risk on capability, quality, and safety. It will be important to adequately source, train, and manage these trades to mitigate risks while optimizing project outcomes.”

The report cites 2023 data from BuildForce Canada, which says Ontario’s construction labour force will need to increase by about 30,500 workers by 2032.

“As most of Ontario's skilled workers have continued to age and retire, the risk of finding enough skilled workers has continued to increase. This means that industries need an increased focus on advanced planning and hiring,” NDP Labour Critic Jamie West said.

“Not every skilled trade has the same available labour pool. This is why the report identifies the need for boilermakers, licensed asbestos insulators, and workers with tunnelling expertise.”

A spokesperson for Ontario’s minister of labour said the province has added nearly 670,000 jobs to the economy, and that the refurbishing of Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is expected to create another 11,000 jobs.

The minister’s office did not address the risks cited in the report.

The Pickering Nuclear Plant is seen in an aerial in Pickering, Ont. east of Toronto Monday August 18, 2003. (Kevin Frayer /The Canadian Press)

The documents also note the refurbishment of the Pickering nuclear plant could be more complex than the work currently underway at the plant in Darlington, Ont., however they say resources will be retained and transferred, which could mitigate some of the risks.

A spokesperson for OPG said they take a conservative approach to project planning and that’s why they mention possible risks in the report.

“Our approach to planning Pickering’s refurbishment is very similar to the method we used to plan the Darlington Refurbishment Project, which remains on plan even as it reaches its final stages,” officials said.

“Darlington Refurbishment’s success to date is a result of several factors, not least of which is our application of lessons learned and openness to innovation.”

One of those lessons, for example, is that certain components could be removed together rather than separately, something officials say “saved significant time on subsequent units.”

The report does make a strong case for the refurbishment of the plant despite the potential risks, arguing it’s needed to keep up with surging electricity demands. The documents note that electricity production at the nuclear plant in Darlington, as well as three additional small modular reactors, will not completely offset the power loss of the four units in Pickering.

“In this context, there is a strong need for reliable, non-greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting generation in the province,” the report says.

The documents outline an estimated 11-year schedule for the project, noting this assumes formal approval by the end of 2023. This lines up with the province’s estimate to have the project complete by the mid 2030s.

Information about the cost of the refurbishments was redacted from the documents, as were sections about Ontario’s electricity demand projections and economic benefits.

Hearing date set for plant extension

According to Ontario Power Generation, the nuclear plant in Pickering is one of the largest stations in the world. About 14 per cent of Ontario’s electricity is produced at this facility.

It was set to be shut down in 2025, but the province is seeking approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to extend that to September 2026.

The public hearing is scheduled for the week of June 17.

Edyta McKay, press secretary for Ontario’s Minister of Energy, said that OPG has ensured safe, reliable and clean operation of both Pickering and Darlington Nuclear Generating Stations for decades.

“We are confident that these well established processes will ensure that Pickering continues to safely provide electricity through September 2026,” she said in a statement.

The province will either have to make ammendments to its licence application or apply for yet another extension after 2026.

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