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Ontario nuclear announcement begs question of what constitutes “clean” or “non-emitting” electricity

December 8, 2021

By Mark Winfield and Colleen Kaiser

Last week Ontario Power Generation (OPG) announced its identification of GE Hitachi as the vendor for a proposed new 300MW nuclear power reactor at the provincially owned utility’s Darlington site. The news was presented as an endorsement of a renewed role for nuclear energy in the fight against climate change, particularly the industry’s move toward Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). In reality, the announcement raises far more questions than it answers, and its actual meaning is far from clear.

At a fundamental level, vital details were missing from the announcement, not the least of which being potential costs. The last proposal for new power reactors in Canada, also at Darlington, came in at between $24 and $26 billion for two units, so hopelessly uneconomic that the province quickly abandoned the notion. Recent attempts to build new reactors in the United States and Europe have met with similar encounters with economic reality. The SMR track record to date indicates that the cost issue is far from resolved.

The BWRX-300 reactor at the centre of the initiative itself only exists as a design – what has been termed a “PowerPoint” reactor – of which no examples have actually been constructed, tested or operated. This makes reliable estimates of costs and performance virtually impossible. It also makes the notion, as suggested by OPG, that the unit, whose design would be different from anything Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission has seen before, could be operational in little more than six years, seem wildly optimistic.

More widely, the announcement begs questions about how decisions around Ontario’s electricity system are being made. As it currently stands, the province has no planning or regulatory framework around the future direction of its electricity system, or, more broadly, how it is going to address climate change. OPG seems to be taking advantage of the resulting vacuum to make a back-door commitment to an expanded nuclear-based pathway, enlarging its own role in the process.

As it stands, Ontario is on track to see between a 300 to 500 percent growth in its electricity-related emissions as natural gas-fired power plants are ramped up to replace nuclear facilities facing retirement or being taken out of service for refurbishment. Under the province’s current plans, gas is projected to account for nearly a quarter of the province’s electricity generation by the late 2030s – more than tripling its current role. That would be roughly the same portion as coal before its phase-out in 2013.

Alternatives to tripling gas production and building new nuclear plants, need to be comparatively assessed. These range from renewed efforts on energy efficiency (largely abandoned by the Ford government in 2019), renewable energy sources combined with energy storage, and an enhanced relationship with Quebec. A conversation with Ontario’s next-door neighbour could be particularly timely, as Hydro-Quebec has recently run into increasing difficulty expanding its hydroelectricity exports to the United States. High voltage interprovincial interties are being identified as critical components for any cost-effective strategy to reduce emissions and meet future electricity demand increases in Canada.

At the national level, there is growing recognition that the achievement of a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050 could require a doubling or tripling of Canada’s electricity output. Moreover, the federal government has announced its intention to aim for a net-zero electricity system by 2035. These directions invite questions about what should qualify as “clean” or “non-emitting” electricity, and whether nuclear energy meets those tests.

At first glance, nuclear does offer some potential advantages, notably large energy outputs with relatively low greenhouse gas emissions. But nuclear, perhaps more than any other energy technology, demonstrates the importance of taking a life-cycle perspective, considering impacts and risks beyond greenhouse gas emissions, and the need to carefully weigh potential trade-offs in choosing pathways to net-zero GHG emissions.

Examined from these viewpoints, nuclear scores poorly and is difficult to view as either “clean” or “non-emitting.” The technology is associated with the generation of large volumes of exceptionally hazardous and difficult to manage wastes. These range from tailings from uranium mining operations, to spent reactor fuel bundles and radioactive components from decommissioned or refurbished reactors. All will require management on timescales measured in hundreds of thousands of years, effectively transferring risks and costs onto generations far into the future, a violation of a core sustainability principle. Emissions of hazardous, radioactive, and conventional pollutants occur throughout the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly its upstream mining, refining and processing stages. The technology brings accident, security and weapons proliferation risks that simply don’t exist with other energy technologies.

The precise nature of the wastes generated by the various designs of small modular reactors being promoted by the industry, including BWRX-300, remains unknown.  Major concerns have been raised about enhanced weapons proliferation risks around fuel reprocessing proposals associated with some SMR designs.

The technology has always been uneconomic, dependent on government support for its developmental costs and to guarantee returns on private investment. Public limitations and assumptions of potential accident and legacy liabilities have been essential to its appearance of viability. This continues to be the case, even in the context of aggressive carbon pricing regimes, as the costs of competing technologies, specifically renewables and storage, continue to fall.

Ultimately, the announcement highlights the need, at the federal and provincial levels, for governance structures that are able to identify and assess potential pathways towards net-zero emissions. These processes must be able to consider and evaluate trade-offs associated with various options in ways that are open, evidence-based, and build legitimacy and public acceptance. Such structures have yet to emerge, but will be critical to ensuring decisions made by current and future governments around decarbonization avoid undesirable trade-offs and advance sustainability for generations to come.

Mark Winfield is a Professor of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, and co-chair of the Faculty’s Sustainable Energy Initiative.

Collen Kaiser is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa.