Energy Minister sticks to his nukes

Globe and Mail: MURRAY CAMPBELL - November 22, 2008

George Smitherman is sticking with his plan to build new nuclear power reactors even though the odds against them coming in on time and on budget are lengthening. The question is whether this is common sense or a stubbornness that will cost Ontario taxpayers billions of dollars.

The government wants to build two new reactors in the next decade to renew its 40-year love-hate relationship with nuclear power. But it couldn't have picked a worse time for the initiative. The cost of building a new reactor is soaring and mastering the complex technology is as difficult as ever. The credit markets are in disarray, making the prospect of easy, cheap financing much more difficult. And if that weren't enough, the demand for electricity in Ontario is sinking as fast as the TSX, raising questions about whether nuclear power will even be needed.

The Energy Minister is being urged by environmentalists to scrap the plan to build new reactors by 2018 at Darlington, east of Toronto, and to phase out a dozen existing nuclear units when they reach the end of their lifespans over the next 10 years. They want him to redouble his efforts to conserve energy and to embrace wind, solar and other evolving forms of green, renewable energy.

Mr. Smitherman dismisses this as wishful thinking. He says Ontario needs the foundation of nuclear and hydroelectric generation to ensure a reliable supply of electricity. He boasts of the government's decision to phase out its coal plants by 2014 - seven years later than Premier Dalton McGuinty's initial pledge - and says he needs the nukes and dams in place before he can consider broadening out to more exotic sources.

"The confidence that I have to pursue a more vigorous agenda with respect to renewables in the supply mix is informed by the confidence that I gain from having a stable baseload supply," Mr. Smitherman said. "It is in Ontario's energy DNA that nuclear is a very big part of that." He says he not inclined to shift his focus "to please some enviros."

Fighting words, indeed, from a minister with a well-earned reputation for combativeness. The odd thing is that he's not their enemy. Apart from pushing ahead to a coal-free future - no small accomplishment - he is rattling the cages of the province's energy establishment to do better on conservation and renewable energy sources. His request to the Ontario Power Authority that it "tweak" its 20-year electricity plan to accommodate more green ideas sent a message about who was in control.

The dispute is what should happen after 2014 when 6,000 megawatts of coal disappear from the grid. The complication is that a further 8,500 megawatts of nuclear reactors will either need to be refurbished or run into the ground and the decisions about most of them will need to be made shortly. Mr. Smitherman believes conservation efforts will bridge some of the gap but he wants a hydro/nuclear security blanket. Environmentalists say green sources could fill the gap, too, and argue that new reactors would create a "nuclear ceiling" that sends a message that green initiatives aren't wanted.

In some ways, it's a rerun of the late 1980s when Ontario last built nukes. At the time, predictions of soaring demand for electricity were wildly wrong and conservation efforts were abandoned.

Today's forecast for a slight drop in demand is likely to be just as wrong as Ontario's manufacturing sector collapses. Indeed, a provincial regulator warns that demand has become so moderate that it drops below baseload generation output several times a year and that this will become increasingly common.

Given recent events, is this the best time to spend $26-billion on nukes? Or should green ideas be pursued even more zealously? The minister must explain.

Keith Stewart, Ph.D.

Manager, Climate Change Campaign


245 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 410

Toronto, Ontario M4P 3J1


Tel. 416-489-4567 xt 725

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