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Reconsidering Ontario’s Nuclear Path – Published in the Toronto Star, March 25, 2011

The unfolding nuclear catastrophe in Japan has reopened the debate about the role of nuclear power around the world, including here in Ontario. The provincial government’s December 2010 “Long-Term Energy Plan” proposes to maintain a commitment to an electricity system that relies on nuclear power for 50 per cent of its output. Nuclear’s contribution would come through a combination of building new plants, and refurbishing existing facilities as they reach their normal end-of-life.

The viability of the government's plans on the nuclear front were already subject to serious doubts even before the disaster in Japan. Ontario has a long history of major cost-overruns and delays on nuclear construction and refurbishment projects. The province’s bidding process for two build reactors at Darlington produced proposals whose costs, at between $23 and $26 billion, were between three and four times higher than the Ontario Power Authority’s original estimates. The outcome prompted the province to terminate its procurement process in June 2009. These experiences have led many to suggest that the $33 billion nuclear cost estimate to replace or refurbish the province’s entire fleet of reactors in the government's Long-Term Energy Plan is wildly optimistic.

Moreover, there are very serious questions about the ability of either of the proponents who filed bids under the 2009 process to deliver viable new proposals in the foreseeable future. Areva of France has suffered a number of difficulties, particularly with respect to its reactor construction project in Finland. Atomic Energy of Canada, for its part, has been put up for sale by the federal government. It is not clear that the company will even exist in any recognizable form a year from now.

Questions about the future role of nuclear in the system have not been limited to the usual 'green' suspects. The province's Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO)has been commenting for some time on the presence of 'surplus baseload generation' (read nuclear) in the system, particularly in the context of declining and less stable demand.

Nuclear supporters argue that Ontario has no viable option but to remain dependent on nuclear power, apparently regardless of whatever challenges of cost, safety, reliability, security and waste management exist or may emerge. In reality, considerable effort has gone into exploring electricity options for Ontario that involve significant reductions or even phase-outs of nuclear power as the existing fleet of plants reaches its normal end of life over the next two decades. The most detailed work began with the 2004 Power for the Future study by the Pembina Institute ( and has been followed up with the Renewable is Doable initiative ( In both cases the nuclear and coal-phase out options, relying on increased efforts on electricity conservation and demand management, and larger roles for low-impact renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and combined heat and power (cogeneration) facilities, emerged as viable, and economically and environmentally superior to the nuclear based plans proposed by the province. These findings were based on what we now know were very conservative (i.e. low) assumptions about nuclear costs, based on the OPA’s estimates before the outcomes of the new build bidding process and the recent refurbishment projects were known. Similarly, the modeling accepted the Ontario Power Authority’s assumptions regarding the growth of future demand. In practice, electricity demand in Ontario has turned out to be in decline, and is not projected by the IESO to increase significantly anytime before the end of the decade.

The federal environmental assessment process for a Darlington new build reactor project, for which public hearings are scheduled to begin next week, is especially poorly configured to explore the questions that need to be answered before Ontario commits to further nuclear construction or refurbishment projects. The key issues about the role and need for nuclear energy in the province’s electricity system have been ‘scoped’ out of the hearing. Any exploration of safety issues is hampered by the consideration that, given that the proponent and nature of the reactor design that will be employed are still unknown, the assessment is ‘generic’ rather than focused on any specific type of reactor.

So far the province has hidden behind the federal process rather than permitting a meaningful environmental review of its own plans. That needs to change in light of the developments of the past few days. Other jurisdictions are reconsidering their nuclear plans in light of the Japanese disaster. Ontario needs to do the same, and initiate a serious public exploration of the options for the future of the province’s electricity system.