Ontario's radioactive elephant in the room

The Globe and Mail: Murray Campbell - 24 Nov 2007

You were lucky if you heard any mention of nuclear power in the last Ontario election campaign. It's a big deal, involving perhaps a government expenditure of $40-billion, but it wasn't mentioned in the Liberal campaign platform.

And Dalton McGuinty was having way too much fun pulling the wings off Opposition Leader John Tory over the faith-based schools issue to talk about anything as controversial as building new nuclear plants. It was sexier to talk about solar panels and wind turbines.

But Mr. McGuinty won and the Liberals feel they have a mandate to build new reactors so that Ontario continues to receive 50 per cent of its power from nuclear plants.

"We have made a decision to build more nuclear," the Premier, with a second mandate, said recently. "In an ideal world, we could just let the wind blow and the sun shine and we wouldn't have to build anything else, but the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine."

It's still early days in this issue, as various agencies ponder what to do with the province's existing - and aging - reactors and how to build new ones. But it won't be quiet for long. Energy Minister Gerry Phillips will have to make some key decisions very, very quickly if Ontario doesn't want to jeopardize its ability to provide adequate supplies of electricity.

And that's the optimistic view. Many in the energy industry believe that the situation has gone beyond critical and that there will be gaps in energy supply starting as soon as 2012. And that's without taking into consideration the government's plan to shut down by 2014 the coal plants that now provide about 20 per cent of Ontario's electricity.

The first critical issue deals with the future of the Pickering B nuclear plant, east of Toronto. Its four reactors came into service in 1983 and by 2012 will be nearing the end of their service. A feasibility study is under way to determine whether it's worth spending $6-billion to extend their lives until 2050.

The informed guessing in the electricity community is that the plant's operators, Ontario Power Generation, would rather spend that money on new, larger reactors. The tricky thing is that taking Pickering B out of service would remove 2,100 megawatts from the provincial grid - enough for two million homes. When would there be enough power for that to happen and not throw Ontario into the dark? Don't count on any new rectors - it takes a decade for them to come online, which means there won't be any additional plants until at least 2018.

Even that date will prove optimistic unless Ontario gets the lead out. OPG was directed in June, 2006, to begin planning for new units, and has submitted for federal regulatory approval an application to prepare a site at Darlington, an existing nuclear plant east of Toronto, for a plant of up to 4,800 megawatts.

But the next step is to choose a technology - either the Candu system used at Ontario's 16 plants now or a variant of the light-water system used in most of the rest of the world - and there's a feeling in the industry that the government has dragged its feet to avoid creating an election issue.

Both Ottawa and Queen's Park are caught in a chicken-and-egg situation over Candu's maker, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Ottawa wants to privatize but it knows AECL would have little market value if Ontario shunned its product. On the other hand, Ontario needs the certainty of long-term support before investing billions of dollars and is leery of Ottawa's intentions.

Further delay would put Ontario at the back of the line for both components and skilled workers as other jurisdictions ramp up their own plans to refurbish existing reactors and build new ones. Don't throw out the candles.

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