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Ontario Power Generation’s Nuclear Power Play

February 3, 2023

Version published in the Globe and Mail February 7, 2024

The Ontario government’s announcement last week of its intention to pursue the refurbishment of the Pickering B nuclear power plant on the shore of Lake Ontario between Toronto and Pickering represents a strategic triumph for the provincially owned utility Ontario Power Generation (OPG). The project would significantly reinforce the utility’s already dominant position in the province’s electricity system. How well the decision serves the interests of Ontario residents, taxpayers and electricity ratepayers, and advances the sustainable decarbonization of the province’s electricity system is another question altogether.  

OPG, for its part, has managed to keep the nearly 50-year-old plant, which reached its designed end of life more than a decade ago, on life support through a series of "life extensions" until it had the opportunity, in the form of a receptive government disinclined to ask hard questions, to advance its resuscitation. That option had been assessed as uneconomic in 2010, particularly in light of the delays, enormous cost overruns and partial failure of the earlier attempted refurbishment of the neighbouring Pickering A plant. The B plant had been scheduled to close in 2018. 

The Pickering facility is located in what is now a densely populated urban area where approval of a new nuclear plant would be extremely unlikely. The economic impacts of a major accident (77 - 1992 estimate + inflation) at the Pickering or Darlington sites could approach $2 trillion.

The Pickering B project is part of larger nuclear expansion strategy being pursued by OPG and the province. The plans include the refurbishment of 6 reactors at the Bruce Nuclear facility (also owned by OPG) and four reactors at the OPG Darlington facility. There are also proposals for four large new reactors totalling 4800MW in capacity at Bruce and four new 300MW reactors at Darlington.  

The total costs of these plans are unknown at this point, but an overall estimate in excess of $100 billion ($13 Billion Darlington refurbishment; $25 billion Bruce refurbishment; ~$15 billion Pickering B refurbishment (based on Darlington costs and plant age); ~$50 billion Bruce new build; Darlington new build unknown but likely $10 billion+) would not be unrealistic. Even that figure would assume that things go according to plan, which they rarely do with nuclear construction and refurbishment projects. This could constitute the largest nuclear construction program in the Americas or Europe.  

Under the current legislative and policy regime for electricity in Ontario, none of these plans are subject to any external review or regulatory oversight in terms of costs, economic and environmental rationality, or availability of lower-cost and lower-risk pathways for meeting the province's electricity needs and decarbonizing its electricity system. Rather, the system now runs entirely on the basis of ministerial directives that agencies in the sector, including the putative regulator, the Ontario Energy Board, are mandated to implement.   

The government has justified its plans on the expectation of dramatic growth in electricity demand over the next few decades. This would be the result of population and economic growth, the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, the electrification of space heating, principally via heat pumps, and expectations of industrial development in areas like the hydrogen economy.  

There are serious grounds on which to question these projections. Growth in electricity demand in the province has been virtually flat past two decades despite sustained population and economic growth. The province has no plans of its own for the electrification of transportation or space heating. In fact, it is currently proposing legislation to facilitate the expansion of natural gas service to new housing developments. Many of the anticipated industrial developments, particularly around things like hydrogen, are speculative at best.   

Even as electricity use expands as a result of decabonization efforts, it is far from clear that those needs will, or need to, translate into demand that can only be served by large centralized, capital-intensive, high-risk and inflexible generating assets like nuclear power plants. 

Ontario’s nuclear plans have emerged at a time of converging and mutually reinforcing technological revolutions in the areas of energy efficiency and productivity, demand management and response, renewable energy and energy storage, distributed energy resources, and electricity grid management and integration (i.e. smart grids).  

These developments are offering the potential for lower cost, lower-risk, faster and more flexible means of facilitating electrification and decarbonization than traditional centralized systems. Ontario is effectively marginalizing the role of these developments, which are being aggressively pursued by other jurisdictions in North America and around the world. Instead, it is looking decades into the past in terms of its approach to energy supply and planning.  

It is also important to consider that while nuclear energy may offer a low-carbon energy source, it fails in virtually every other dimension of sustainability: costs; the production of high volume, toxic and radioactive up and downstream waste streams that require management on timescales of hundreds, if not thousands, of millennia, and security, catastrophic accident and weapons proliferation risks that simply do not exist in relation to other energy technologies.  

These considerations mean that nuclear projects need to be options of last resort in efforts to decarbonize energy systems, considered only after all other, more sustainable options have been examined and their contributions optimized. This is precisely the opposite of the approach now being taken by Ontario. These are choices that Ontarians and Canadians may come to regret for decades, if not centuries, to come, if they are not subject to some form of serious external review of the province’s electricity and decarbonization options before it is too late to reconsider.