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Ontario opts for high-risk nuclear over low-risk energy sources

Ontario opts for high-risk nuclear over low-risk energy sources

By Mark Winfield 

Friday, July 21, 2023

Ontario’s energy plan released this week opened the door marginally on renewable energy and energy efficiency. But it also reaffirmed the centrality of nuclear energy to the province’s plans.

In fact, the announcements by the Ford government of 4800MW in new build nuclear projects at the Bruce Nuclear site near Tiverton, and three additional new reactors at the Darlington site east of Toronto, committed Ontario to one of the largest nuclear construction programs in the world.

The consequences of these decisions for Ontario electricity ratepayers and taxpayers are likely to stretch far into the future. No cost estimates are available for the proposed nuclear projects. The bids submitted as part of the province’s last attempt at a new-build nuclear project would optimistically suggest costs in the range of $50 billion for the Bruce project alone. The costs of the four smaller reactors proposed for Darlington remain unknown, given that none of the proposed type of reactor have ever been built or operated before anywhere in the world.

The challenges around nuclear energy are well known. A long and ongoing history of massive cost overruns and construction delays; fuel wastes that will require management on a time scale of a million years; and accident, security and weapons proliferation risks that simply don’t exist in relation to other energy technologies.

These points were again highlighted by last week’s announcement by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s approval of the discharge of more than one million tonnes of contaminated water from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster into the Pacific Ocean, and the continuing news of fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine.

Given these risks, private capital has been hesitant to engage with nuclear projects, and progress on a much-touted nuclear “renaissance” in Europe and North America has been slow. This has been despite aggressive efforts by governments to guarantee returns on investment and assume ultimate liability for waste management, decommissioning costs and accidents. It is no surprise that the only significant investor in the first of the proposed new “small” reactors at Darlington was the federal government’s own Infrastructure Bank.

A rational planning process around electricity and decarbonization would have prioritized the options with the lowest economic, environmental, technological and safety risks first. Higher risk options, like new nuclear, should only be considered where it can be demonstrated that the lower-risk options have been fully optimized and developed in the planning process.

This would suggest maximizing efforts to increase energy efficiency and productivity and reduce the need for new energy resources.

The development of low-impact and low-risk energy sources with relatively short planning and construction timelines like wind, solar, and the optimization of existing hydro resources, along with advanced energy storage technologies, should follow.

Ontario would also seek to strengthen its relationships with other provinces (e.g. Quebec) around their existing hydro and new low-impact renewable energy resources.

Unfortunately, the province has chosen to take precisely the opposite path — pursuing the highest cost, highest risk and highest negative impact option — nuclear expansion — first, along with growth in greenhouse gas intensive gas-fired generation. Everything else — efficiency, renewables, and distributed energy resources — has been left to the margins, with no specific targets or objectives.

The good news is that the province’s announcements remain at a preliminary stage — key technical approvals for new build reactor projects will still be needed and their economics remain very open questions. There may still be time for Ontario to move toward a more rational, open, and evidence-based approach to energy planning and decarbonization. But nuclear proponents will be doing everything they can to lock in the government’s choices as quickly as possible.

Mark Winfield is a professor of environmental and urban change at York University and co-chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative. He has written extensively on energy, electricity and climate change issues in Ontario.

Originally posted on Toronto Star