McGuinty ponders nuke plans


BARRIE, Ont. – A decline in electricity demand in the face of a ``massive" economic slowdown was behind Ontario's move to put plans for new nuclear reactors on hold and shouldn't be seen as a shift away from nuclear power, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday.

"We've had a massive slowdown in economic growth; I think every year for the last four years we've required less and less electricity," McGuinty said after an event in Barrie, Ont.

"Now that will turn around, there will be an increase in demand ... but we have more breathing time than we thought three years ago."

The Ontario government had been planning to spend $26 billion to add two new reactors at Darlington, east of Toronto, to meet the demands of a power-hungry province over the next 20 years.

Last week, Energy Minister George Smitherman made the surprise announcement that the much-touted plan would be put on hold until the province got a better deal from top contender Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., or AECL.

McGuinty said at the time that it was largely up to Ottawa – which is putting AECL's nuclear reactor business up for sale – to determine whether Canada's most populous province moves forward with nuclear power.

But on Tuesday, McGuinty said those comments didn't mean the province was passing the buck to Ottawa, or trying to pressure Prime Minister Stephen Harper into a nuclear bailout in voter-rich Ontario.

"We're leading this. It's our responsibility to ensure that we have a reliable supply of clean, safe and affordable electricity long into the future," McGuinty said.

"What we're trying to do now is figure out how much we're going to need, ideally by 2020."

Coming up with those estimates is difficult, however, because ``estimates are built on shifting sands."

"The estimates that our best experts gave us three and four years ago are pretty different from those that we're getting right now," he said.

McGuinty added he hadn't spoken with Harper personally but that his office has been in touch with the prime minister's, looking for a secure a commitment from Ottawa about the future of AECL, as well as a signal the federal government is ready for "some serious discussions."

While McGuinty's latest comments don't signal a clear shift away from nuclear energy, Greenpeace energy analyst Shawn Patrick Stensil said he was cautiously optimistic to hear the government will give ``a sober second thought" to a plan that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

"In 2005 they were really beating the nuclear drum, there was nuclear euphoria ... and it was all built on these promises of really, really cheap" energy, he said, adding the nuclear bids seems to have given the province sticker shock.

"We've always seen them underestimate costs and overestimate demand."

But despite McGuinty's latest assertions, Stensil said the province has clearly punted the problem back up to the federal government – a move he considers irresponsible.

"As Mike Harris used to say, there's only one taxpayer, and we'll be paying for this reactor one way or the other."