Toronto’s Emergency Response Protocols Under Review

The Executive Committee of Toronto City Council, chaired by Mayor John Tory, adopted a motion on Toronto’s nuclear emergency response and considered the recommendations from 11 city councillors. Darlington nuclear generating station has four reactors producing about 3.5 Gigawatts. It is located about 40 km east of the Toronto limits. The Pickering nuclear power plant has six reactors producing about 3.1 Gigawatts. It is even closer – less than 10 km east of the city limits. The city councillors signed the following letter:

Darlington Nuclear Generating Station Licence Renewal, Toronto’s Emergency Response, and International Best Practices


Councillor Mike Layton, Councillor Michael Thompson, Councillor Norm Kelly, Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, Councillor Gary Crawford, Councillor Chin Lee, Councillor Paul Ainslie, Councillor Jim Karygiannis, Councillor Raymond Cho, Councillor Michelle Berardinetti and Councillor Ron Moeser request that:

The City Manager, in consultation with the Medical Officer of Health and the Office of Emergency Management, report back to the Executive Committee by March 2016 on:

  1. The status of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station licence renewal and any issues relating to emergency response discussed during the renewal process.
  1. Toronto’s emergency response protocols for nuclear risks and international best practices for both Darlington and Pickering Nuclear Generating Stations.
  1. The appropriateness of the current 10 km primary response zone for distribution of Potassium Iodide (KI) pills and whether it should be expanded given the 50 km evacuation zones of other jurisdictions.
Photo by Alexander Belyakov

           Photo by Alexander Belyakov


We are fortunate to live in a region of the world that has not experienced a nuclear disaster firsthand. While it is highly unlikely that there will be a serious nuclear accident, we, unfortunately, know it can and has happened and that we need to be prepared to respond. March 2016 will mark the 5th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Lessons can be learned from nuclear tragedies in other parts of the world, lessons that can better prepare us and ensure the safety of Toronto residents. We can also learn from international best practices that shape the emergency response of other regions to ensure we are doing all we can to keep our residents safe.

For the Toronto residents who live east of Morningside Avenue, within the 10 km “primary zone”, this issue hits close to home. This year will be the first year residents who live within 10 km of a nuclear power plant will be mailed a package of Potassium Iodide (KI) pills – also known as RadBlock. The pills are meant to help prevent the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine, which travels quickly as a gas in a nuclear disaster, therefore reducing the risk of thyroid cancer.

Previously,  RadBlock was available at local pharmacies for residents in the primary zone but very few people picked them up. It was for that reason that in 2014 the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) ordered the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to mail them to everyone in a 10 km zone by the end of 2015.

Those who live and work within 50 km of the power plants are in a “secondary zone” and the OPG has said that they can order the pills for free online. However, we know residents in the 10 km zone were not picking up their pills from pharmacies when they were previously made available and it is therefore not likely that everyone in a 50 km zone will order theirs online. Meanwhile, best practice internationally is to have a much larger primary zone including up to a 50 km evacuation zone. In the unlikely event of a disaster, people within the secondary zone will also be exposed to radioactive iodine.

The first week of November this year the CNSC held hearings on OPG’s proposal to rebuild the four aging Darlington nuclear reactors. The Commission received hundreds of submissions, including many from Torontonians, expressing concern regarding the adequacy of Ontario’s off-site nuclear emergency plans. The OPG has not prepared for an accident involving a large-scale radiation release.

Staff and members of the CNSC expressed serious concern with the Ontario Government’s management of nuclear emergency response since the Fukushima accident in 2011. They echoed public concern regarding failure to openly review and update Ontario’s off-site nuclear plans four years after Fukushima.

Similarly, Durham Regional Council passed a motion on Wednesday, November 3, 2015, asking the Province to be more transparent regarding off-site nuclear emergency plans and “to consider the feasibility of expanding the 10 km primary zone.” This provincially defined 10 km primary zone is the area in which the Province maintains emergency measures, such as public alerting and detailed evacuation plans. It was established in the 1980s before Chernobyl and well before the Fukushima disaster, which eventually resulted in an evacuation zone of up to 50 km.

The Ontario Government plans to spend billions to extend the operational lives of nuclear power plants. If these reactors are going to continue to operate, it is clearly in the best interest of Torontonians that there be transparent and comprehensive emergency plans in place to ensure public safety.

In light of the public concern expressed at the CNSC hearings earlier this month and Durham Region’s call for the Province to be more transparent and consider expanding the primary zone, we believe there’s a need for the City of Toronto to review Ontario’s nuclear emergency plans and have input on what improvements may be desirable.