Ontario Liberals in pickle, and Bruce Power knows it

Simcoe Reformer: GREGG MCLACHLAN - November 10, 2008

Nuclear intrigue.

That's one way to sum up what's unfolding in Nanticoke.

Ontario-based Bruce Power, a private company which already operates a nuclear power plant 250 km northwest of Toronto on the shore of Lake Huron, has taken a bold step that could ultimately save Dalton McGuinty and Co.

The company's $30-million environmental assessment at an 800-acre site in the Nanticoke Industrial Park will almost certainly pave the way for it to build a nuclear power plant that starts generating electricity by 2018. (Don't entirely fall for corporate babblespeak that this assessment is purely exploratory. In today's economic downturn, companies don't spend $30 million willy nilly. Preliminary work has already set the stage for this study and it will likely produce few surprises: that Nanticoke is a suitable site for a nuclear plant.)

Bruce Power CEO Duncan Hawthorne has been publicly touting nuclear power at Nanticoke since March 2007.

The only oddity is that the province has never publicly endorsed the concept or, now, the project. At least not yet.

But we can read between the lines.

It's no secret that a power window is rapidly closing on Ontario's Liberals.

McGuinty has promised that the province's dirty coal-fired power plants will be shut down by 2014. That includes the Nanticoke Generating Station, the largest plant of its kind in North America.

So far, the province has made no announcement on what will replace one of the province's key hydro stations that supplies enough electricity to power millions of homes.

However, one thing is certain: the province knows another significant power generator must be located in Nanticoke, purely because of the vast hydro transmission corridor that runs north from the station. It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to acquire land and build a new corridor elsewhere (new power plant not included). Such an idea may be next to impossible today anywhere near the development-restricted Greenbelt.

All the province has said publicly so far is that it wants renewable energy sources to play a key role in replacing coal-fired power generation.

Bruce Power has strategically positioned itself to meet that Liberal position -- which means, eventually, McGuinty & Co., will have little choice but to endorse the Nanticoke plan.

In addition to nuclear, Bruce Power says it will study building what it calls a 'clean energy hub' involving wind, solar and hydrogen power in Haldimand-Norfolk -- which likely means Nanticoke -- through a partnership with the Canadian Hydrogen Association, University of Waterloo and McMaster University.

It's that part of Bruce Power's plan that will be enticing to the Liberals who can eventually piggyback on it for a firm public-friendly green energy strategy. Even if 50 per cent of people dislike nuclear, there's a strong likelihood the other 50 per cent will support a 'clean energy hub.'

From a purely public marketing standpoint, the 'clean energy hub' concept is a brilliant new strategy to add to the mix when considering building a nuclear power plant.

So, if we read between the lines, we can surmise that:

A) The Liberals are quietly, but knowingly, letting Bruce Power go it alone and absorb the environmental lobbyists' protests over its site assessment and pursuit of nuclear power in Nanticoke;

B) Only when the timing is right (how about an election campaign?), will the Liberals announce endorsement and/or participation and/or funding in a 'clean energy hub' for Nanticoke that meets their previous pledge to use renewable energies to assist in the replacement of coal-fired generation.

In the case of the Nanticoke Generating Station, a government is simply not going to make a casual, low-key announcement about what's next at the site. For years the plant has been the high profile target of environmentalists fighting dirty emissions. So a government announcement will be made at a time and place for maximum political and environmental gain.

Bruce Power, also eyeing expansion of its nuclear operations into Alberta and Saskatchewan, is simply getting a jump start in Nanticoke on solving an Ontario dilemma well known by the Liberals.

In the meantime, do some math.

The Liberals pledge to close the Nanticoke Generating Station in 2014.

Bruce Power says a nuclear plant wouldn't be producing power until 2018.

That leaves a gap of four years where, as it stands today, millions of homes will be short on electricity.

Unless, of course, the Nanticoke coal-fired plant's life is extended yet again, or retrofitted to use another cleaner fuel source.

There's plenty more intrigue left to keep you plugged into this tale for years to come.

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