A circuitous road toward new reactor

The Globe And Mail: Murray Campbell - February 19, 2008

CLARINGTON, ONT. -- It's a prime lakefront site, perfect for a new nuclear power station. There are acres of room, ready access to a major electricity-transmission corridor and, what's more, the surrounding communities are happy with the idea, because they've been living with nuclear for nearly 20 years.

All this explains why the publicly owned Ontario Power Generation is preparing to construct a new facility next door to the Darlington nuclear station on the shores of Lake Ontario east of Toronto. If the company gets the go-ahead, it could be providing power to the grid by 2018.

But this is the energy industry, where nothing ever happens in a straightforward manner. Plenty of knowledgeable people suggest the target date is wishful thinking, and that, as a result, Ontario's ability to produce sufficient electricity for its needs is imperilled.

Ontario is counting on a renewed nuclear program - new reactors and refurbishment of existing facilities - to keep the lights on. It's a particularly acute need given the government's desire to shut down by 2014 the coal plants that produce about 20 per cent of the province's electricity.

In June, 2006, the government directed OPG to begin the process of getting federal approval for a new nuclear plant, and the company is preparing applications for a 4,800-megawatt facility. At the same time, privately owned Bruce Power has bid to build 4,000 new megawatts. The government is slated to decide by the end of the year whether the new station should be at Darlington or at the Bruce complex on Lake Huron.

The challenges facing both companies and the government are manifest. The technology is horrendously complex and expensive. The approval process is cumbersome. And Ontario has a tortured history with the nuclear industry that haunts it still.

Energy Minister Gerry Phillips is adamant that the 2018 target will be hit. There is criticism that he is already behind schedule. But he says he needs the rest of the year to decide on the location of the plant and which technology design to use because the decision is so fundamental to Ontario's future. He had a ringside seat when the cost of building the original four units at Darlington soared in the 1980s and doesn't want to repeat the experience.

"I'm doing due diligence up front so I won't, at the end of the process, regret that I didn't spend the time to get it completely well positioned going out the door," he said.

Mr. Phillips is at the mercy of the federal regulatory process, however, and the controversy over the Chalk River reactors has exposed the turmoil there that threatens future projects.

The nuclear industry - and perhaps even the federal government - wants to speed up the process of licensing reactors. But increasingly sophisticated anti- nuke groups like Greenpeace are committed to a strict regulatory approval and won't be playing along.

The Chalk River affair has also exposed the shortcomings of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which will be bidding against a handful of foreign firms for the Ontario contract. The disclosure that the company is 10 years behind schedule on two isotope-producing reactors doesn't instill confidence.

Will Mr. Phillips wait for AECL to get its act together? Or will he opt for a foreign firm and stare down a federal government that needs AECL to win the contract? Will there be enough skilled tradespeople to build a reactor? Uncertainties abound and the biggest of all of them is that 2018 date.

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