Sale of AECL muddies Ontario’s power future
I F TIM HUDAK’S Progressive Conservatives win the October 6 provincial election, as now seems likely, there’s at least one area where a Hudakled government is likely to be at odds with its Ottawa-based cousins, the Harper-led Conservatives.
Last week’s announced sale of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited will seemingly make it impossible for any Ontario government to get the co-operation previous Conservative governments achieved in developing Canada’s only complex of nuclear power plants, which currently produces roughly half the province’s electrical energy.
Nuclear power has always been a technically complex and politically difficult area, with critics tending to overlook the successes Canada’s nuclear scientists and engineers achieved, as well as to point to disasters such as the one in Chernobyl and the more recent one in Japan as evidence that the same or worse could happen in Ontario.
However, both the governing Liberals and the Hudak Conservatives are currently committed to including nuclear power in Ontario’s generating mix as far preferable to any alternative.
Both parties prefer it to continuing with coal as the heat source for the steam used to turn power-station turbines, and both acknowledge that “green” solar and wind projects have their limits in both cost and reliability. And no one argues that the province has much left in the way of power from waterfalls.
The only obvious alternative to building some new nuclear plants would seem to be to enter into longterm purchase contracts with other provinces, notably Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador, all of which have undeveloped hydraulic sites. However, the imported power is likely not available for many years, will likely be as expensive as nuclear power, and will have none of the spin-off benefits to the Ontario economy that new nuclear power stations offer for the construction and related industries.
As matters stand, the Harper government’s effective killing of the domestic nuclear power industry is a bit like the Diefenbaker government’s killing of the Avro Arrow project half a century ago.
In both cases, we had a prairie-based prime minister who saw the project as far too costly and lacking any guarantee of future profitability.
In both cases, the government’s decision meant the loss of huge numbers of good-paying jobs, the only difference being that in the 1950s many of the displaced scientists and engineers were able to head south and join the burgeoning space program in the U.S. (No such prospect exists today, with both the nuclear power and space industries shedding jobs south of the border.)
Clearly, Ontario wouldn’t have any of its current three nuclear power projects had it not been for the support successive governments in Ottawa gave the first two projects, at Douglas Point and Pickering.
Back then, the support came in the form of a sharing of the huge risks involved in the use of largely unproven technology. The 200-megawatt Douglas Point station was under construction even before the 20-megawatt Nuclear Power Demonstration plant on the Ottawa River had come on stream.
History repeated itself when Ottawa gave similar protection for the first two 500-megawatt units at the Pickering Station, with the feds prepared to underwrite any net production costs above those encountered at the coalfired Lambton Generating Station near Sarnia.
In the end, both the Douglas Point and Pickering stations worked at least as well as Ontario Hydro had expected and there were no claims for compensation from Ottawa but commitments to build six more units at Pickering and 12 larger ones at the Bruce and Darlington nuclear complexes.
On the plus side, AECL’s CANDU technology has proven to be safer than those employed in the U.S., Europe and Asia, with its on-line refuelling permitting some of the Ontario plants to set world records for productivity.
On the minus side, premature deterioration of the reactors’ pressure tubes has led to long, costly shutdowns, albeit with proof coming that the reactors can eventually be returned to service.
Economically, there have been both pluses and minuses, with at least some of the Pickering and Bruce nuclear units being built without the huge cost overruns encountered at the Darlington plant because of government-ordered construction delays in a period of high interest rates, and more recently at refurbishing projects at the Pickering A and Bruce A stations.
Today, the Harper government’s sale of AECL to SNC Lavalin for a mere $15 million comes at a time when Ontario was negotiating the purchase of two CANDU units for the Darlington project and AECL was desperately seeking a buyer for a newer design, where the risks involved would be similar to those faced by Hydro at Douglas Point and Pickering.
It seems that all the McGuinty Liberals wanted from Ottawa was some insurance against cost overruns. And you can count on it that as Hudak government will take the same stance, despite the Harper government’s refusal to make any such commitment.