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Nuclear path not without pitfalls

Waterloo Region Record - June 18, 2008

Ontario's Liberal government announced this week that the province will build two new nuclear reactors at Darlington, just east of Toronto. The news is welcome: Ontario's economy, in particular its faltering manufacturing sector, needs the assurance of a secure supply of energy well into the future. The alternative is facing the uncertainty of brownouts, or even blackouts.

Some critics are unhappy to see the province commit so definitively to nuclear. Going nuclear may not be a perfect solution, but it is the best one for now. The province's coal-fired generating plants are among the worst polluters in Ontario, contributing heavily to smog and global warming. Gas-fired plants are less polluting, but still pump out carbon emissions.

Nuclear energy makes up about 52 per cent of the province's energy mix today. Building two new reactors won't increase the amount of nuclear in the power supply mix, but simply maintain the status quo.

The plan is an ambitious one: A nuclear power plant hasn't been built in this province since 1992. As such,the province must proceed with caution.

Energy Minister Gerry Phillips was cagey, however, about whether the $26 billion earmarked for the project last August is sufficient to get the project done.

Nuclear reactors are notoriously expensive undertakings. Ontario residents are still paying the cost overruns associated with the Darlington plant construction, estimated to cost $5 billion when it was first announced in 1978, but which eventually got built a decade late, at triple the original cost estimate. Even smaller nuclear undertakings seem to run over budget: restarting idle reactors at Bruce Power was to cost $2.5 billion, but that's now pegged 36 per cent higher, at $3.4 billion.

The experience of another recent effort to build full-scale reactors is another cautionary tale: Florida Power and Light's cost estimates to build two reactors have more than doubled, because of the soaring cost of steel, copper and concrete. The Darlington reactors aren't set to begin operating for another decade. A lot can happen in 10 years.

Cost overruns, therefore, aren't likely to be a surprise at Darlington. No one is saying the province should build the reactors on the cheap, but it needs to commit to being as open as it can about costs, since Ontario taxpayers, and energy ratepayers, will be shouldering the burden of those costs.

And a second caveat for the province: nuclear is an acceptable alternative, for now, but there must simply be an even greater push on for developing alternative energy and greater conservation.

Ontarians have shown they are open to greener energy generation. Just here in Waterloo Region, in the past few weeks, we have seen approval for wind measurement towers in Waterloo to see if wind energy projects are feasible in this area, and a proposal to use a fallow 15 acres of North Dumfries farmland to produce solar power.

Nonetheless, such alternatives still are on the margins of the province's energy efforts, despite a blueprint that calls for a doubling of the proportion of renewable energy by 2016. Queen's Park continues to invest in hydro, solar and wind power, and to promote conservation. But it must give conservation and renewables a much higher profile, so that they become real, viable options for all Ontarians, rather than add-ons for die-hard believers.

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