Buy local apples - but nuclear plant?

Christina Blizzard - April, 2009

Premier Dalton McGuinty said on Monday that his government will "grow local" when it comes to buying food for public institutions.

It's one thing to promote Ontario apples. What about nuclear plants? Will the government apply the same Buy Ontario directions when it awards contracts to build new nuclear generators?

The government is walking a fine line.

Just as one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, so too, one man's Buy Ontario rule is another person's protectionism.

In June, the government will announce the successful bidder for $20 billion in contracts to build two new nuclear units -- producing 3,000 megawatts of power -- at Darlington.

(And please don't say windmills and conservation will save us. Our nuclear stock is aging. We need new generation.)

There are three bidders: A Pittsburgh-based consortium that includes Westinghouse and Toshiba; French-based Areva; and homegrown Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL).

Until now, AECL has been the mainstay of this country's nuclear industry. It built all 29 reactors in this province. It should be favoured to win the contract. Unfortunately, it has an appalling track record.

As my colleague Greg Weston reported recently, when the federal government pulled the plug last year on the new Maple mini-reactors AECL was building, it was 10 years late and 500% over budget -- and they didn't work.

There are major delays in refurbishment projects at Bruce Power and in New Brunswick. The 50-year-old Chalk River reactor that produces half the world's medical isotopes for cancer patients worldwide, has a spotty reliability record.

McGuinty said yesterday that price isn't the only criterion the successful bidder must meet. They must also provide jobs here.

"In terms of the weight that we attach to different parts of their bid, one of the parts that we will be weighing as very important is how many of our folk are you going to employ, because we are the centre of the nuclear industry right here in Ontario," the premier told reporters.

In question period, McGuinty had this warning: " . . . We are a powerful exporter of goods, and should the rest of the world decide to stop buying Ontario goods, we'll be in serious trouble, so we're going to continue to walk that line."

That line includes not just nuclear plants. It includes streetcars for Toronto. Do you buy from Europe or Mexico? Or from Thunder Bay?

Transit vehicles can be built anywhere in the world and shipped. You can't build a nuclear plant in France and float it across the Atlantic. It has to be built here. No matter who wins the bid, there will be jobs in this province.

Still, if a foreign company wins the contract, it would mean a huge loss of domestic expertise and sound the death knell for the nuclear industry in this country. If you can't sell your new reactor at home, who in the rest of the world is going to buy it?

That's the fine line the government must walk. Do you prop up a domestic company that has no solid record of achievement just because it's a hometown favourite?

If AECL had shown a record of providing value for money, this would be a no-brainer.

As it is, you have to compare apples to apples, nukes to nukes. When the homegrown product is as good as the offshore one, I'm all for buying local. But when you're buying nuclear reactors, you need to have faith in their performance, reliability -- and cost.

Article ID# 1515329

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