Let's not make the same nuclear mistakes

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Once you get over the shock of the bottom line on your next Hydro bill, take a moment to scan the lines above it. Make sure that you take special note of the line that says "Debt retirement charge" (something that, thanks to Mike Harris, first started appearing in July 2002). Unfortunately, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Energy Minister Dwight Duncan have signaled that they intend to repeat many of the nuclear-sized mistakes that led to that line being there.

In September, McGuinty announced that "we are prepared to go ahead with economical, safe, new nuclear if that is recommended by the OPA [Ontario Power Authority]… Should the OPA recommend nuclear as being an indispensable part of a diverse supply of electricity, then we will build new nuclear in this province." The OPA was created by McGuinty earlier this year and is stacked with handpicked nuclear advocates. He has to know that its report - expected to be delivered December 1 - will recommend further expansion of nuclear facilities and refurbishing of existing facilities. He's put all of the conditions in place to say yes to that recommendation. Cost is just one of the many reasons that this is a bad idea, but it's a good place to start.

Every nuclear expenditure undertaken by the province of Ontario has ballooned far beyond the projected cost (so McGuinty's stipulation that any new development be "economical" is a bit of a joke). That's been true of refurbishing existing nuclear plants (even Duncan admits that doing so "transferred an enormous level of risk onto the backs of Ontario's ratepayers and taxpayers") and its been true of building new facilities. Here are some numbers (all numbers and direct quotations courtesy of the Pembina Institute) to think about when you're deciding whether to support McGuinty's expected direction of more reliance on nuclear generation:

  • Early estimates for the Darlington nuclear station pegged the cost at $2.5 billion, while estimates immediately prior to construction projected that it would cost less than $4 billion. It cost over $14.3 billion and was years late in being completed.
  • The cost of the first round of Pickering reactors (to both the federal government and Ontario Hydro) was projected in 1964 at $393 to $420 million. By 1965, that estimate had risen to $508 million. The project eventually cost $716 million.
  • "In 1974, construction started on the four Pickering B reactors immediately beside Pickering A… The 1974 release estimate for the four Pickering B reactors was $1.585 billion, and the final cost in 1986 was $3.846 billion."
  • "The 1969 release estimate when construction began on the four Bruce A reactors was $930 million (dollars of the year).The final cost was $1.8 billion (dollars of the year… The initial release estimate for Bruce B in 1976 was $3.929 billion and the final cost was $5.994 billion (dollars of the year)."
  • In 2001, "Bruce Power expected that the reactors would be restarted in the summer of 2003 at a total cost of about $340 million... The cost of refurbishing the two reactors also more than doubled to $720 million."
  • The latest refurbishing and restart of the Pickering A nuclear reactors was projected to cost $780,000. "By September 2002, $1.025 billion had already been spent. At that time, OPG [Ontario Power Generation] estimated that the start-up of Reactor 4 would cost another $230 million, and the other three reactors would cost an additional $300 to $400 million each. Thus the cost for restarting reactor 4 alone was then estimated to be $1.255 billion, with a likely additional $1.2 billion for the other three reactors, totalling $2.455 billion -- three times the original cost estimate."
  • "The total future refurbishment costs for Ontario nuclear generating facilities have recently been estimated [by the Pembina Institute] to range between $14.2 to $19.2 billion dollars."

As Tom Adams of Energy Probe notes, "They thought they were building assets and they were building liabilities".

The notorious unreliability of Ontario's nuclear generation system is not only the chief contributor to the province's Hydro debt; it's also one of the chief reasons why we have experienced and will continue to experience electricity shortages (which, even if McGuinty eventually keeps his promise to phase out all of Ontario's coal plants, means that we'll have to import coal generated power from Michigan and Ohio - thereby worsening our air quality problems).

In the event of an accident, the Nuclear Liability Act restricts the nuclear industry's liability to just $75 million. Taxpayers are going to be on the hook for the rest.

As well, beyond vague fantasies that "a willing host community" will volunteer to provide a site for nuclear waste storage, no one has yet come up with a viable long term solution for safe disposal of the waste generated by these plants (something that you'd think would have been a prerequisite for building them). Canada's Auditor General of Canada noted in 1991 that "a long-term solution for high-level radioactive waste was estimated by the nuclear industry to cost $9 billion (in 1991 dollars)." That estimate is likely to be about as accurate as their estimates for the cost of building nuclear plants.

The solution to Ontario's energy needs does not lie in more nuclear energy (I'll write another column soon on where the solutions do lie). We simply can't afford it.

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