Replacing Ontario’s Nuclear Energy?

Photo: Ilker Ender, Flickr, Pickering Nuclear Generating Station 

This blog, prepared by Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, is being shared as a guest post to respond to a few CAPE donors who have asked the question: “Where would Ontario get its baseload electricity if it shut down its nuclear plants?”

Guest Post:  Prepared by Jack Gibbons, Ontario Clean Air Alliance, January 2018

For close to 50 years, Ontario has relied on nuclear power to supply a large share of its electricity. In that half century, the cost of nuclear power has climbed steadily, the risk of nuclear accidents has been made terribly real by events in Chernobyl and Fukushima, and no jurisdiction anywhere – including Ontario – has managed to devise a practical solution for dealing with the tonnes of dangerous radioactive waste sitting outside nuclear reactors, including in the heart of the Greater Toronto Area.

In short, nuclear power has largely been a failure. It has never even come close to meeting the claim that power produced from reactors would be “too cheap to meter” and never resolved the inherent dangers of combining highly complex systems with massive failure risks.

It’s little wonder that nuclear is now a “sunset” technology with most places in the world moving rapidly away from a technology that has now been eclipsed by increasingly low-cost renewable energy systems.

Ironically, Ontario was an early adopter on renewable energy with the passage of the Green Energy and Economy Act in 2009. But the nuclear industry and its allies did a good job of blaming costs that were incurred in rebuilding a dilapidated electricity system entirely on the move to adopt a modest amount of green energy. These claims actually never added up, but they made good headlines.

Today, Ontario has reversed course, moving back to a multi-billion dollar emphasis on nuclear and ignoring the fact that renewable power has never been more attractive (prices for both solar and wind set new low records every month it seems) – it cancelled its last procurement round for large renewable projects and just ended its innovative Feed-in Tariff program.

The funny thing is, Ontario actually has a green power advantage many other places can only dream of: proximity to one of the world’s green energy powerhouses. Our neighbour, Quebec, is one of the largest producers of water power in the world. It also has stupendous (and low cost) wind power potential and, like Ontario, more than decent solar power potential. The thing is, by working together, Ontario and Quebec could create a super-powered partnership. Renewable energy works best when distributed over a wide area to compensate for conditions that may not always be favourable everywhere. So Ontario can send Quebec wind power at night or in winter when it is needed by our neighbours, while Quebec can literally store “intermittent” power by using wind or solar rather than water power when those sources are running strong in either province.

Together, we can create a system that is low cost (Quebec has the lowest electricity prices in North America), reliable (through a diverse system that doesn’t leave us dependent on one or two aging nuclear plants), and safe (no waste products or accident risk).

And what can put this partnership over the top is working together to maximize energy efficiency. Energy efficiency has proven to be a very low cost way to keep the lights on in Ontario at just 2 cents per kilowatt hour. If Quebec followed Ontario’s lead in exploiting this tremendous resource, it would be easily able to meet the demand for safe, clean power from both Ontario and a number of U.S. states. It’s a simple recipe for success and Quebec has made it clear it is ready to get things cooking. Now we just have to convince Ontario to get into the kitchen.

Related Posts:

Ontario’s Nuclear Emergency Response Plan is Far from Adequate

One thought on “Replacing Ontario’s Nuclear Energy?”

  1. Re: Replacing Ontario’s Nuclear Energy

    Jack Gibbons, writing for the Ontario Clear Air Alliance, states that the top priority for Ontario’s energy policy ought to be the closing down of its nuclear reactors and the signing of agreements with the Quebec government for hydroelectric power instead. The rationale for both of these suggestions is that nuclear power has largely been a failure. I believe that Mr. Gibbons is wrong: not only should our nuclear plants not be closed, but there is absolutely no evidence that nuclear power has been a failure.

    In early January 2018, we had some very cold weather in Ontario. I checked how we were doing with respect to energy production over a 48-hour period, January 7-8th, 2018. The wind blew variably, producing anywhere from 3709 MW at its peak to 682 MW at the nadir. There was negligible solar output, and as a result, our renewables needed 100% gas backup. Meanwhile, our base load was provided by 50-60% nuclear and the rest hydro. Without nuclear we would surely still be burning large amounts of coal. And this was powering a provincial economy that is slightly more than 50% of the entire Russian economy. This is hardly a failure. What is a failure is the efforts to reduce CO2 emissions in a way that matters, and for this we in the environmental movement bear some responsibility. Let me explain what I mean: in the five decades since Lyndon Johnson was briefed on the issue and the two decades since Kyoto, environment activists have consistently opposed nuclear energy—and our collective inability to reduce our carbon footprint is, in part, due to this. (If you would like to watch a leader in the environment movement explain this, watch Michael Shellenberger in a TEDTalk called “How fear of Nuclear Power is hurting the Environment”.) We have benefited enormously from the foresight of successive Ontario governments to build and maintain nuclear reactors. Although this does not necessarily make the case for the future source of our base load energy (but I will get to that), to denounce nuclear power as a failure while staring at Ontario’s prosperity is both melodramatic and irresponsible.

    Mr. Gibbons’ major concerns are: safety, cost, management of waste, and risk containment. Let’s examine these briefly. The nuclear industry’s safety record is unparalleled. Fewer than 100 direct deaths over a half-century. Millions die every year from the polluted air produced by coal. Are there risks to nuclear energy? Yes, but the worst accident to date has been Chernobyl and the damage from that, although localized, pales when we consider the devastating calamity that we now face from global warming and ocean acidification. How many people will be displaced and/or exterminated if we continue to rely upon outdated forms of energy?

    As for cost, when all externalities are factored in nuclear energy is about the same price, or cheaper, than others. The US Energy Administration pegs the cost of advanced nuclear(AN) at $96.2 per MWh and hydroelectric power at $100.56 (it’s important to acknowledge that the reason for this is hydro’s load factor is realistically at 54% in their calculation-it doesn’t always rain and reservoirs run low), and progress is being made on AN in China and India. Like every other piece of human engineering, I have no doubt that the 100th AN plant built will be substantially better than the first.

    Next, of course, to the fear of accident, is the issue of waste. But the fact is that we have very safely and successfully managed the spent fuel of the last 50 years. It occupies in Ontario only a 9 foot pile on 1 acre of land. Most of this will be substantially reduced through its reuse as fuel in newer, more advanced designs. With the past success managing waste as we have, mostly on the site of current plants, surely we can expect the same for the next 100 years when plants with less waste will be in use. Now this is not to say that waste won’t be dangerous, but the grandchildren now alive should surely be more of an ethical concern than descendants thousands of years hence. Without a reliable source of energy, a decent life is not possible. Current projections have the earth peaking around 10 billion people. It is a reasonable assumption that most will aspire to live like those of us with energy riches rather than the reverse. Total energy demand is projected to increase by about 50% from current levels, and this factors in conservation and better energy intensity. With fossil fuels currently comprising 80% of the world’s energy supply, very few clear-eyed analysts believe renewables will replace all of that, plus meet increased demand in time to avert severe consequences. Germany has made a valiant attempt and much can be learned from them, but ramping down their nuclear plants has predictably led them to use more coal and to drastically slow their progress in lowering carbon emissions.

    I do not doubt the sincerity of the OCAA, but supporters of using Hydro Quebec as Ontario base load should at the very least acknowledge that were we starting now to dam Northern Quebec, there is a chance that it would go nowhere. Opponents to damming rivers are everywhere (for example, Site C in BC and Bala Falls, Ontario) and frankly they make very good points. The environmental damage created by damming rivers is significant; it doesn’t appear to be anymore virtuous than the nuclear industry. As I pointed out above, it is certainly no cheaper, and in most of the world it is nonexistent. Were the dams not in place, and they are so let’s use them, it might have been better for the land, its people and wildlife to have a few nuclear plants in the James Bay Area, cooled by the run of a wild river.

    The final point that I would like to make is that CO2 emissions are a global issue, so we should be looking at solutions that are best both locally and globally. There is a massive market that Ontario is prepared to compete in. Indeed, the safety culture required to manage a nuclear plant is paramount and Ontario has a lot to offer the world. The Darlington Plant has been noteworthy in this regard. For the sake of our economy we need to be as good at nuclear as we are at hydroelectric generation, because one is exportable and the other is not.

    David Mathies, MD
    Huntsville, Ontario

    Liked by 1 person

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