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Nuclear power a risk for the PM

National Post: John Ivison & Peter J. Thompson - January 11, 2007

Everyone you talk to in Ottawa these days is convinced there will be an election this spring -- everyone, that is, except high-ranking Conservatives. Cabinet ministers and senior political staffers are not always privy to the intrigues taking place inside the Prime Minister's Office but they have sensitive antennae and several are saying privately they do not expect the government to engineer its own defeat this spring.

One of the main reasons is the Conservatives' vulnerability on the environment. The public is demanding action on global warming. It doesn't know what sort of action it wants, because most Canadians have just a vague understanding of the issue. But voters know the good guys from the bad guys --and on climate change, the Conservatives are Darth Vader.

It is the task of new Environment Minister John Baird to convince Canadians that, like Vader in Return of the Jedi, they have turned from the dark side and are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We don't know how he plans to do this but the current prebudget waltz between Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper may offer some clues.

Mr. McGuinty is committed to closing the province's coal-fired power stations. To pick up some of the generating slack, the province is set to spend billions of dollars on two new nuclear reactors.

One bidder for a $3- to $4-billion reactor at the Darlington plant, east of Toronto, is AECL, a Crown corporation that many in the industry believe is about to be put on the auction block by the Harper government. A successful sale of AECL's CANDU reactor to the Ontario government would increase the value of the company. But if that business were to go to a rival such as Areva, the Franco-German company, or Toshiba-Westinghouse, it would send the message that AECL can't even win business in its own backyard and its value would plummet.

The Harper government is keen that Ontario buy CANDU, so much so that Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn said recently it is "imperative" the contract go to AECL. But the Conservatives' enthusiasm goes beyond industrial policy. The only significant reduction in carbon emissions since Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol has come since the Pickering nuclear plant brought a number of its units back on-line. In any given year, Ontario will see 18 million tonnes of CO2 savings when electricity is generated by Pickering's six nuclear reactors, rather than by coal-fired power stations.

If the federal government helped facilitate new nuclear building, it could claim with some justification that it was making progress in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sources say Mr. Harper and Mr. McGuinty discussed the nuclear issue recently. It is a good bet the Ontario Premier raised the issue of the $538-million promised by Paul Martin to help pay for the closure of the coal fired stations. That money was taken off the table when the Conservatives came to power but Mr. Harper may now be thinking he was too hasty --particularly if he could tie any federal contribution into the fiscal imbalance package expected in the next budget.

For his part, Mr. McGuinty is using his newly discovered leverage to maximum effect, with officials voicing fears about the CANDU's security system, while musing that Ottawa will have to sweeten the deal considerably if AECL's competitors offer lower-priced reactors.

Any new money for nuclear reactors in Ontario would immediately bring demands from New Brunswick and Quebec, the only other provinces with nuclear facilities. Each has a CANDU reactor that is either being refurbished (New Brunswick) or is due for refurbishment (Quebec). There could also be demands from Alberta, where the provincial government has not ruled out nuclear as an alternative to natural gas to help steam bitumen out of the tar sands.

In many ways, a national program that positions nuclear as a key component in the fight against climate change is logical. But opinion in the current, erratic climate is governed by warm fronts and activist groups such as the Climate Action Network. While demanding the Conservatives reduce greenhouse gases and meet Canada's obligations under Kyoto, they are rigidly opposed to any expansion of nuclear.

Stephane Dion, the new Liberal leader, has been lukewarm on nuclear, pledging to make sure existing nuclear sites are safe and efficient but directing investment to alterative and renewable energy sources.

More important would be the NDP response to any nuclear initiative. If he wants to avoid an election, Mr. Harper needs Jack Layton to support a revamped green plan, but New Democrats, federally and provincially, have been resolutely "no new nukes." It is hard to see Mr. Layton supporting any solution that involves expanding nuclear, which may mean an election whether Mr. Harper wants one or not.

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