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Nuclear tennis match

TheStar.com: EDITORIAL Opinion - June 30, 2009

Nuclear power is not dead in Ontario. Rather, it has become a political tennis ball volleyed between two governments, Conservative Ottawa and Liberal Queen's Park.

Provincial Energy Minister George Smitherman made that clear yesterday in announcing the suspension of Ontario's pursuit of new reactors to replace its aging nuclear fleet. "The ball, in a certain sense, is in the court of the government of Canada," he said.

How so? There are three companies bidding for the contract to build new reactors at the Darlington nuclear site: Areva (French), Westinghouse (Japanese/American), and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., or AECL, which is owned by the government of Canada.

Smitherman said that AECL's was the only bid that was "compliant" with Ontario's requirements. That is not surprising, given that AECL's CANDU reactors are already running at three Ontario locations (Darlington, Pickering and Bruce) and the company employs, directly and indirectly, thousands of skilled people in the province.

According to Smitherman, however, AECL's price was too high (by "many billions") and the company's future is too uncertain, given the federal government's announced intention to privatize it.

Translation: It is up to Ottawa to bring down the price and to clarify AECL's future. Otherwise, the loss of the deal – and of our domestic nuclear industry – will be on Ottawa's hands, not Ontario's. And Ontario will have to look elsewhere for new reactors.

The alternative – phasing out nuclear power, which supplies one-half of Ontario's electricity – is a non-starter. Renewable sources like wind and solar power won't fill the gap because, as Smitherman pointed out yesterday, the wind doesn't always blow and sun doesn't always shine. Coal is a major greenhouse gas emitter. And natural gas is too volatile in price and uncertain in supply.

As for nuclear power, Ontario's preference, of course, would be to stick with our home-grown technology. But the risks at present are too high for the province alone to bear. If Ottawa wants to maintain Canada's foothold in the nuclear sector – and it should – it will have to play ball with Ontario by sharing those risks and securing AECL's future.

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