Activists dreaming if they think nuke power will die in Ontario
The Globe and Mail, 19 July 2003
ERIC REGULY Staff Writer
Nukes are doomed. That was the message delivered on Thursday outside the headquarters of Ontario Power Generation, the godfather of nuclear power, by the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout. It bills itself as a coalition of public interest and environmental groups, among them the Sierra Club of Canada, and its mission is to convince governments and the public that nukes are an idea whose time has come and gone.
They're too expensive to build, refurbish and decommission. They pose grave safety risks and - guess what - they don't really work, as the $2-billion-plus repair fiasco at OPG's Pickering station shows.
Let's forget for a moment that nuclear power generation emits no greenhouse gases, something to consider in a country that has embraced the Kyoto accord on climate change.
Since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, the safety record of nuclear plants, at least in North America, has been remarkably good. How many lives ended prematurely because of the nitrogen and sulphur oxides belched out by the fossil fuel plants?
The Nuclear Phaseout people do not delve into these issues. Their point is that Canada's 14 operating reactors - a dozen in Ontario, one each in Quebec and New Brunswick - are getting old and frail and "in the absence of heroic efforts to rehabilitate these plants, and perhaps even with such efforts, by 2019 the output of the Canadian nuclear program will fall to zero," they said in a report.
This is a good thing, they say. Conservation, developing renewable energy and importing clean hydro power from Quebec and Manitoba will make up the shortfall, save a ton of money and make the atmosphere smell like daisies. So run out and buy solar panels and triple-insulated beer fridges.
The Phaseout report would make better reading if it were realistic. If anything, nuclear energy is on the verge of a comeback. That's why Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the developer of the Candu reactors that put the country on the nuclear map, is still in business. It's developing the next-generation Candu, called the ACR-700. The new design is to be submitted for Canadian licensing next year.
A little math shows the Phaseout report's nuclear death prediction is premature. Currently, about 32 per cent of Ontario's potential generating capacity comes from nuclear energy; 28 per cent comes from hydro and the rest, 40 per cent, from the fossil fuel plants - five coal burners and one fuelled by oil and natural gas.
The coal burners, which produce about three-quarters of the fossil fuel total, are doomed. The beasts are not Kyoto friendly and emit too many pollutants. The Tories, under Ernie Eves, have stated they will be toast by 2015. The Opposition Liberals want them eliminated by 2007. Meanwhile, electricity demand in the province is growing at 1 to 2 per cent a year.
Something has to give here. The math says that within 12 years, and possibly within four if the Liberals get lucky, about one-third of Ontario's generating capacity will have to be replaced as coal gets the heave. But replaced with what?
Meeting demand, let alone replacing the coal burners, would be a gargantuan task. One major new gas plant (assuming relatively clean-burning gas is the fuel of choice) would have to be built every year just to handle 2-per-cent electricity demand growth. How many would have to be built to replace the coal plants and cover rising demand? Try dozens, at a cost of billions of dollars.
Not to worry, the Nuclear Phaseout people argue. The aforementioned options - conservation, renewable energy and the like - will come to the rescue. There is no conceivable way these options could make up for the coal burners within a few years. The technology is not there and the popular will and financial incentives to cut back consumption drastically are absent.
The one practical option, importing juice from Manitoba or Quebec, would take years and years to accomplish. Mr. Eves, in fact, has approached Quebec about importing power. The problem is that Quebec doesn't have the spare capacity and would have to develop it. Even if a few spare watts were around, the existing transmission capacity is insufficient.
Add it all up and Ontario cannot rule out keeping its existing nukes alive. It might even have to build more.
AECL is evidently gambling this will happen. The nuclear team at OPG, having just gone through the horrendously expensive overhaul of one of the four Pickering A nuclear units, obviously doesn't want to work itself out of a job. The consortium that has leased OPG's Bruce nuclear plant thinks there's a bright future in nuclear energy and wants to acquire more nukes. Does this look like a campaign for nuclear phase-out?