How Pickering Nuclear Generating Station became key to Ontario’s energy plan

An alert warning Ontario residents of an unspecified incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station early Sunday morning was sent in error, Ontario Power Generation said. OPG sent out a tweet about 40 minutes after the emergency alert, which was pushed to cellphones at about 7:30 a.m., saying it was a mistake. A jogger runs along the beach past the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, in Pickering, Ont., Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020.
Click to play video: 'Ford government to extend life of Pickering power plant beyond 2024'
Ford government to extend life of Pickering power plant beyond 2024
RELATED: The Ford government announced plans to extend the life of the Pickering nuclear power plant beyond 2022. Global News’ Queen’s Park Bureau Chief Colin D’Mello reports – Sep 29, 2022

Dr. Chris Keefer’s campaign to save Pickering Nuclear Generating Station from closing began far away from the concrete building that crouches on the edge of Lake Ontario, just east of Toronto.

As part of a global push to get nuclear power up the agenda, the emergency room physician packed a collection of home-designed flyers in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic and headed into downtown Toronto to canvass support.

“We had conversations with some of the interesting cast of characters at Nathan Phillips Square,” Keefer told Global News.

Next, he graduated to holding pro-nuclear placards he’d made in his yard using his son’s paint set outside Queen’s Park, the provincial legislature.

By early 2024, he was being name-dropped by the ministers of finance and energy as they announced what he’d called for was happening: the Ford government would work to extend the life of Pickering Nuclear Power Station — responsible for 14 per cent of the province’s electricity — for decades with a full refurbishment.

Click to play video: 'Ontario to refurbish Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, expected to create 11K jobs per year'
Ontario to refurbish Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, expected to create 11K jobs per year

The policy seemed almost impossible just four years ago, with plans long in motion to shutter the plant.

“We bluffed and blustered the whole way along,” Keefer admitted.

A push from the Ford government to focus on industrial jobs, a surge in electrical demand and the sheer amount of energy the station produces conspired to set the once-dead policy at the heart of Ontario’s energy plans.


On Jan. 30, the province confirmed it planned to keep Pickering Nuclear Generating Station for decades to come with a full refurbishment, to be completed by the mid-2030s.

The facility was originally due to be retired in 2020, a plan pushed back to 2024. The Progressive Conservatives shunted that date to 2026, before committing to the refurbishment.

An energy election

When the Progressive Conservatives ran for their first term in the 2018 election, competing to replace a long-time Liberal administration, energy was a key issue on the ballot.

The Liberals were under pressure for electricity costs in the province, with their critics framing Hydro One and its executives as the key reason for the high cost of power.

Then, when Doug Ford won his first term, the newly-elected premier faced an energy controversy of his own, scrapping contracts for renewable energy at a cost of around $231 million.

The hangover from that decision still lingers, with green energy proponents and opposition politicians convinced the government was failing on the zero-emissions energy file.

“The part that I find a little more frustrating is the conservative government has kind of bounced around on the energy file,” Ontario NDP MPP Jamie West told Global News.

“Lots of noise right now about electric vehicles but when they first got elected they ripped out charging stations. There are other alternative energy sources that could help… the windmills and things like that, they cancelled those when they were first elected.”

Despite the criticism, government sources say they have felt the heat of opposition turned down on the energy file in recent years, with the refurbishment of Pickering Nuclear Generating Station meeting little vocal pushback at Queen’s Park, particularly compared to the volume of opposition to energy decisions in 2018 and 2019.

The province is loudly confident in its decision to extend the life of Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, one that only came together in the past couple of years and wasn’t on the agenda in the 2018 election or even as the 2020s dawned.

“It seemed like a slam dunk,” Energy Minister Todd Smith told Global News.

An energy cliff

The Ford government found its voice on the electricity file in the summer of 2022, with a slew of announcements as a potential energy crisis loomed.

Through the summer and fall of 2022, Smith darted around the province, unveiling one policy after another to reduce energy consumption and to increase output. He announced incentives to make homes more efficient, turn down air conditioning and new contracts for more gas power.

He also announced in the fall of 2022 that he would be working to extend the life of Pickering Nuclear Power Station past its original closure to 2026 and said he would begin probing if a refurbishment of the plant was possible.

Keefer said that announcement came after years of unsuccessful lobbying.

Even months earlier, when his nuclear advocacy group published a report into the benefits of keeping Pickering open in the future, his approaches had fallen on deaf ears.

“We released a report in July of 2022,” he said. “The response at that point from the ministry was, ‘No, not looking at it, not interested.'”

The decision to extend the power plant’s life came as Ontario stared at an energy cliff.

Refurbishments at other nuclear power stations, combined with a massive spike in demand from the industrial and electric vehicle sectors, meant Ontario was facing a gap in its energy production and would need to rely more heavily on natural gas to get it through.

The government insists it wasn’t caught off guard but that, after years of declining energy demand, a renewed focus on industrial jobs was beginning to pay off.


“It wasn’t until the last couple of years, we actually started to see those manufacturing jobs coming back, and they’re coming back at a rapid rate,” Smith said.

Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith addresses a news conference at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station in Pickering, Ont. on Tuesday, Jan.30, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.

The minister did not say exactly when he realized the once-doomed facility was going to be a central plank of his policy.

“We started looking at all of the options that we had and ultimately we have an energy site in Pickering that’s producing a lot of megawatts of electricity,” Smith added.

“We had extended it or asked for it to be extended twice to meet the demand that we knew we were going to need up until late 2026.”

Communication documents previously obtained by Global News also show officials were aware that announcing changes extending the province’s nuclear fleet could help boost its environmental credentials and soften the criticism of ramping up natural gas.

The documents show extending Pickering’s life was “one in a series of announcements” leading up to confirmation in October that Ontario would open new gas power stations for the first time in years.

“Announcements in the lead up to the (Independent Electricity Systems Operator) report would reinforce the message that the government is looking at all alternatives to emitting resources,” said one document.

The Pickering decision was designed to be “leveraged as part of a broader communications strategy” to improve the perception of the government’s green credentials.

A push for new jobs

In its plans to refurbish the Pickering plant, the Ford government found several unlikely allies, from a doctor to workers’ unions.

Dr. Keefer said he came to the realization he could link nuclear power to the province’s powerful labour movement as he stepped up his campaigns to keep the power plant open. Those advocacy efforts have now taken him to Glasgow, Dubai and a range of other climate and nuclear conferences where he has canvassed for support and new ideas.

He told Global News his advocacy background is rooted in the labour movement, and he pushed to harness the well-paid union jobs associated with Pickering to save the plant.

“I’ve been a lifelong advocate,” he said.

Government sources say it wasn’t necessarily his advocacy that tipped the refurbishment decision, but having someone who works as an emergency room physician and not a nuclear power lobbyist endorse their message made packaging the plan easier.

They point to other nuclear refurbishments and small modular reactors as examples of nuclear policy that predate the doctor’s push.

Workers return to the plant after a news conference at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station in Pickering, Ont., Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.

When the refurbishment was announced, it was also met with a glowing endorsement from the union representing workers at the plant, which is set to see thousands of jobs stay for future decades and thousands more created during the refurbishment itself.

“Today’s announcement protects good union jobs, and will help our province produce low-cost, emissions-free power as we electrify our economy into the future,” Michelle Johnston, president of the Society of United Professionals, said in January.

“We’re glad to see the government choosing to refurbish our CANDU reactors, which support a strong, unionized, made-in-Canada supply chain.”


West, the NDP’s labour critic, agreed the refurbishment is ultimately good news for many in the community.

“From a labour angle, we have some of the best energy workers in the world,” he said.

“They’re employing tens of thousands of people, plus a lot of people are going to be employed during the refurbishment… these jobs going forward, they’re unionized jobs.”

A continued opposition

Despite its unlikely supporters — and Smith’s assessment of the project as a “slam dunk” — rebuilding the aging nuclear facility to run for several more decades is not a decision that comes without its critics.

The Ontario Green Party called Pickering one of the “oldest, worst-performing” nuclear power stations on the continent and questioned the decision to put more money into the site.

“The best way to protect Ontario’s consumers, economy and climate is to invest in low-cost renewables and ambitious efficiency programs to help Ontarians save money by saving energy,” the party’s leader Mike Schreiner said.

Although he has shown broad support for the plan, West also called for further transparency, particularly around how much the refurbishment will cost the taxpayer.

“It’s not that I’m concerned that it’s a bad deal, it’s just that we have a conservative government that hasn’t been transparent about things in the past,” he said. “I think the people of Ontario deserve to know what it’s going to cost us. What the feasibility case of doing this is.”

The Ontario Clean Air Alliance said the extension was a “dubious” and “reckless” plan that won’t solve the province’s short-term energy crunch.

Smith, however, argued the refurbishment will essentially rebuild the power station, which he said has a strong safety record

“This facility is a safe facility, it’s proven to be a safe facility for 50 years,” he said. “And part of the refurbishment process is going to completely rebuild this facility as well.”

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will still have to approve the refurbishment plan.